From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Not moving people?

I don’t think we really talk much about goods transport here. Let’s change that.

A few years ago JTC were looking into building some kind of “underground goods mover system”. This would mainly be a system to transport goods from the future Tuas Port to Tanjong Kling, Jurong West, and Gali Batu. Not much has been said about the study in the past seven years or so, so one might be forgiven to think that it’s been silently shelved or something.

Jurong West and Tanjong Kling are near Tuas, so they may not be that big of an issue, but it’s when you bring in Gali Batu (and presumably the Sungei Kadut developments, by extension) that things start to get complicated. As the crow flies, the distance from Tuas to Gali Batu is 9km — it might be even longer if the tunnel alignment cannot go in a straight line and must follow roads.

Pod people things

According to The Business Times,

The move is expected to optimise use of surface land for industrial purposes and other supporting facilities. Experts believe the underground goods movement system will be automated, with conveyor belts and self-driving cars being possible options.

This I think is a pretty loaded statement with plenty to discuss inside. Automation, I’d think, is quite a necessary thing considering our concerns with finding workers to operate the line and the fact that we already have automated passenger-carrying train lines. But this is JTC, seemingly the purveyor of gadgetbahns galore, so I think we can moderate our expectations there.

Conveyor belts may be the simplest option, but with the sheer amount of moving parts distributed geographically it may not be the best idea in terms of maintainability. This would look like a jumbo-sized version of Changi Airport’s baggage transfer system, but with the actual baggage being, presumably, twenty-foot or forty-foot shipping containers, or perhaps some other bespoke size. I’m not going to go too far in examining the environmental impact since trucks can get electrified with batteries, and this also ought to be happening anyway.

As for self driving vehicles, well… the Boring Company offers something with sleds in a 12-foot (3.6 metre) diameter tube that can fit standard shipping containers. But like our LRT experiments, it raises the question of being chained to a single supplier — in this case, the whimsical fantasies of Elon Musk, and other questions may arise revolving around the safety of battery powered sleds.

There may be other options, like having freight locomotives and freight cars as in almost every other country in the world. Much research is going on in the field of driverless freight trains, after all. But unlike the other options, automated freight rail may present some more challenges which we can then explore further. If meter gauge trains are used, there may be some potential in extending the Gali Batu/Sungei Kadut branch to meet KTM trains on a retained Causeway line, presenting some interesting opportunity for transshipment to Tuas Port from the KTM network as they had dreamed in the 1960s.

But in any case I don’t think anyone should be arguing about whether the system needs to exist or not — Tuas Port’s relatively remote location vis-a-vis the rest of Singapore allows for great transshipment options, but for imports and exports from Singaporean manufacturing operations and consumers, it’s not in such a good place compared to even Pasir Panjang. And this may well become a bigger issue — record-breaking increases in exports may be a sign of expansion in Singapore’s export manufacturing activities, and transport service will be needed to connect these manufacturing activities to Tuas Port unless they think they can handle the logistics of trucking all the way there.

In the old days

It has to be pointed out there used to be such a link — the Jurong railway line, first proposed by the colonial government, and built after merger, with the expectation of there being a common market to Malaysia and thus Singapore’s ports can be used for Malaysian imports and exports as well.

Of course, that didn’t happen and eventually freight services on the Jurong Line were withdrawn. But since the KTM also passed by Gali Batu, there could have been opportunities for local freight shuttles along the KTM tracks, assuming the issues around ownership and such can be dealt with. Still, things are what they are now, and the Jurong Line’s replacement in concept will likely be the CRL, a passenger railway.

Still, this might be the guiding principle behind why they want to have another attempt at a goods transportation system not including road trucks. The Tuas Viaduct may only do so much and even it too may be prone to congestion, considering the distances it has to cover between the PIE/AYE junction at Tuas Road and the Tuas Port itself. And that’s even assuming the viaduct proper will be extended more closely into Tuas South or out to Pioneer Road.

And that’s even considering manpower. Since the autonomous self-driving truck won’t be coming anytime soon, what makes or breaks the project will be the amount of labour it can free up for other industries or pursuits. After all, at the risk of being overly simplistic, every truck taken off the road is a truck driver that is also taken off the road. And that’s assuming we can even find as much people to sit at the wheel of a truck then as we can now.

The land bridge

Whatever form it takes, conceptually the question has to be answered — how do you cover the last mile? Such an underground system would help relieve load from the road network within Tuas and out to the expressway network as mentioned, but you’d still need to replace the bit where a crane lifts the shipping container onto the back of a hauler truck and the hauler truck brings the container to where it needs to go.

Right now, that bit is done directly within the port, and a hauler truck drives out of the port, maybe drives along the Tuas Viaduct, then enters the expressway network or the local Tuas/Jurong road networks. Using the existing road infrastructure, said hauler truck can bring cargo direct to the destination where it’s needed. But this may not be sustainable as port capacity shoots up and it also has to meet the import and export demands of local manufacturers.

With such an underground goods mover, however, the burden of such activities are shifted out to the various industrial areas, so every truck doesn’t have to pack through the Tuas Port’s access roads. Loading sidings, both at the industrial areas and at Tuas Port, will be needed for containers to be loaded and unloaded from whatever is used. These inland ports might give off energy similarly to the HyperPort concept, where container sorting and storage facilities may be necessary at least for containers to wait for trucks. Or other forms of autonomous vehicles developed to haul containers within the nearby areas of the “inland port”.

And of course, they will consume land. It’s not going to be Kim Chuan Depot kind of big, but the real land savings might come from being able to reuse the land above. Of course, being a “station” and not a sensitive site like a depot, they may indeed be more open to developing the land above the inland terminals.

Bedok North MRT construction site, soon to be a hospital (source: Google Earth)

A useful barometer might be the temporary construction sites used to construct recent underground MRT lines. In these sites, there are shafts from which loaded construction wagons and/or material are lowered by crane into the MRT tunnels to perform track laying or systems installation activities (such as the laying of cables, for example). Or perhaps the measures taken by Hong Kong to preserve the flow of goods by using railways to replace quarantined truck drivers as Shenzhen approached lockdown. At least they had spare rail sidings.

In a goods yard, it might be either that the whole wagon is lowered into the loading siding; or that cranes lift containers on and off parked wagons deep in a pit. Since this is a permanent arrangement unlike in MRT construction, it would be a good idea to attempt to reduce as much as possible the necessary vertical lift between the truck and the wagon. This means that either the truck loading area may have to be underground, or that the tunnels and sidings have to be sufficiently shallow. A longer “pit” may also be necessary to allow multiple sections of a goods train to be loaded and unloaded at the same time.

In fact, one such underground loading area may be built as part of the Gali Batu terminal of such an automated goods transport system.

Systems, systems, systems

But what carries the actual containers? There may yet be nothing wrong with Muskian powered sleds being used as transport wagons — though perhaps it could be considered to use linear motors or something more accessible in terms of technology, and perhaps on-route electrification to eliminate the need for batteries. Or, as mentioned, regular freight trains with a locomotive and passive trailers could be used. Something in the middle, with some motorized vehicles and some passive trailers, like JR Freight’s M250 Series trains, could even work too.

The most important may not be the choice of the vehicles, but of the control systems needed not only to control automated vehicle operation, but also of automated loading and unloading of containers. This may call for a combination of existing railway control systems, perhaps adding the kind of baggage loading technology seen on the HK Airport Express and Taiwan’s Taoyuan MRT, and also throwing in some of the systems necessary for the automation of Tuas Port itself in terms of container tracking and routing.

source MTR Service Update

To me, the question now is, who is best equipped to do it? The LTA, with its expertise in railway systems? PSA, who are familiar with port automation requirements and technologies? Or even a private operator?

But I guess this project presents an interesting perspective — if it happens, we might have our first non-road goods transport system since the Jurong Railway was shut down in the mid-1990s. Perhaps it might even be intended to use the system for internal goods transport within Singapore, and not just to Tuas Port, which could perhaps take even more trucks off the roads.



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