From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

On reinventing the wheel

Do “gadgetbahn” solutions really work in Singapore?

There are, in fact, several examples that would stare a reader of this blog right in the face — the people mover systems in Bukit Panjang, Sengkang and Punggol, arguably inspired by the then-UMTA’s interest in using people mover systems to serve the downtown cores of cities. Or maybe even the Sentosa Monorail, the very definition of a toy train given its minuscule capacity.

But that’s not all. Elon Musk is once again making headlines with his “Hyperloop” stuff — which is essentially maglev in a vacuum tube. Well, loopy ideas are fine, if you’re an entrepreneur. Not if you’re a local transport agency in general. Should we even be thanking the creator of your choice that no tech entrepreneur has swung by and suggested the HSR be turned into a maglev or hyperloop route? I don’t know, maybe?

Well, as detailed by both Alon Levy and Anton Dubrau, gadgetbahns get plenty of attention in the marketplace of ideas unlike a boring bus or train because it sounds “cool” and “innovative” compared to things that have been around for very long. And if you think the local media here are immune to that, boy do I have news for you.

Get your hard sell out of here

We have not been historically kind to lobbyists in this country. But of course, they have to lobby. It’s their job, after all. The reason why this is even big enough of a problem now, warranting the attention of a blog post, is because of the amount of bus-manufacturer-lobbyist propaganda I’ve been seeing recently, such as trackless trams —though for the purposes of Brisbane, it’s just a bi-articulated bus with a fancy name. Speaking of fancy names, I refuse to use the alphabet soup of acronyms cooked up by the Sinosphere (even Prof Su Chao-hsu appears to be guilty of this), so we use plain English.

The same lobbyists may feel that my branding of their hard work as “gadgetbahn” is an insult. But it is what it is. Bus drivers already need special training in order to handle bendy buses given their different maneuvering characteristics. I fail to see how a double-articulated bus, which probably handles even worse, would work here outside of a guided busway, given how we are likely to have to pull the labour pool from a vanishingly small list of drivers qualified for long vehicles. And have I mentioned the kind of motorist behavior SG Road Vigilante exists to catch? An increased amount of accidents ended up being one of the reasons why the Taichung BRT was laughed out of town and downgraded to mere bus lanes with regular vehicles.

Somehow or rather, though, the Chinese don’t think this is a problem. They’ve even come up with a line-following trackless tram that promises to not require a manned presence on board. I can already hear the lobbyist argument as well — with the intelligent transport systems we have here, the “trackless tram” can be notified of upstream disruption and change its route if necessary. Maybe by GPS? Nah, there are little if any meaningful alternate routes for most places where the capacity would be useful, given our geography.

Perhaps those lobbyists may find better reception up north, where the Melaka Monorail exists. Maybe it might have been meant as a real solution to transport issues in Melaka, but it’s become a theme park ride of sorts. Maybe it was supposed to be something like the Sentosa Monorail, but I guess you can say it’s far lesser than that, with trains on the Sentosa Monorail being 16 cars long. Now that I think about it, would the old Sentosa Monorail actually have had a higher capacity than its modern replacement, if standing were allowed?

Curb your enthusiasm

But before we talk about anything else (like when Hitachi tried to propose a monorail system for the Marina South area), let’s look at what we have here and how to salvage the situation before things get even worse. It of course goes without saying that we shouldn’t do any more of that, but what’s built is largely built and we’ll have to find a way to deal with it.

Long enough ago, I thought that the Bukit Panjang LRT should be torn down and replaced with buses. I still do, in fact, as I’ll explain below. And while bus connectivity to the not-entirely-convenient DTL station may work in the short to medium term, I’ve entertained the thought a few times that with the LRT gone, it would be possible to extend the JRL Jurong East branch from Tengah to the inner regions of Bukit Panjang, providing actual heavy rail connections for Bukit Panjang estate proper even if the DTL connection is still not going to be great. Much like how Toronto plans to replace the Scarborough RT with an actual subway. But since we bought ourselves another twenty years, maybe the subject could be revisited in the future.

For the Sengkang-Punggol LRT, comparable Japanese systems are typically of much higher capacity than the mixed 1/2-car fleet here. I fail to see any reason why significant capacity expansion can’t be implemented to make the LRT more useful in its current form with full 2- or even 3-car operations, especially considering that we may or may not have an expansion for the LRT depot on the cards. That’s just me, though.

That said, in place of whatever newfangled transit system they could dream up, I think there may be some opportunities for rail-based trams to make a return in selected areas, having last run in Singapore over 90 years ago. But this is still going to be highly situational with limited applications, and it’s not really going to be the right tool for the job in all cases. Interestingly, two Sydney Trams vehicles put together are actually of the same length as a three-car Circle Line train. The only really revolutionary thing about a modern tram would be the fact that it has to run on batteries, given the authorities’ aversion to any form of overhead wire and the complexities of ground-level power supply.

Ask the right questions

Even if we can approach the question from a perspective of “why not” instead of “why”, without preconceived bias clouding one’s view, you have to ask what the goals one wants to meet. Coverage, capacity or speed? I think with the official goal of 55 minutes from JLD to the airport per jld.gov.sg, as well as their ruthless approach to bus service regulation, they’re aiming for the first two. And maybe before I continue, this is a point where I silently express gratitude that we haven’t yet had an invasion of the pod people proper.

For one, there is nothing stopping JTC from thinking big and saying that unmanned self-steering PRT pods can work in their futuristic business districts such as the Jurong Innovation District. Personally I think the focus for urban development projects ought to be on walkability and active mobility (e-scooter rentals?), not alighting from the MRT and then still having to call a pod to one’s workplace. But siting the Hyundai factory right next to the train station really gives pause to the idea. I don’t like it, but it might be justified especially given the manufacturing concepts going on in JID, and how industrial areas tend not to be easily densified — even a flatted factory isn’t a very pedestrian-scale place. Trust me, I’ve worked in some before.

Small little driverless pods bristling with sensors, running on fixed routes on public roads could even act as a replacement for low-catchment bus services for which it can be difficult to justify a frequent bus service, maybe they could even operate on demand, being summoned by apps such as like what was attempted a while back. But problem number one: grade separation. Problem number two: not everyone is young, English educated, and tech-savvy, though I presume my average reader is. Immigrants or the elderly with poor command of the English language would be poorly suited to cope, for example.

Ah yes, flying KDK fans. (source: Bernama via CNA)

But those I mentioned aren’t *significantly* game-changing. I once had a talk with an air-taxi fanboy who was utterly convinced that air taxis would change the world. Yeah, not happening, given how personal air mobility vehicles would probably be blotting out the sun especially with a third dimension factored in. Drone deliveries yes, but I don’t think flying pods are ready to take people. We don’t even have pilot-less planes yet. But again, the key goals of coverage and capacity need to be met. Even if one wanted to have flying pods, in my opinion the minimum capacity of one would have to equal, if not better, an EasyMile EZ10.

Of course, there’s the real gadgetbahn technologies like maglevs and hyperloops. With 1000km of almost nothing between the Malaysian border and Bangkok, some people might think there is a chance to adopt such experimental super-high-speed technology instead of the HSR in order to “future proof” it for future expansion to Thailand. Otherwise, even at 350kph you’re probably looking at a 6 hour train ride from Singapore to Bangkokat the bare minimum. Still, we know how much cost mattered to the previous Malaysian administration, and realistically a maglev wouldn’t have changed much — it would probably have added to their pain, on the other hand, especially once you consider the difficulty of adding off-line stations compared to traditional HSR. But that’s not really urban transportation so we’ll leave it at that.

Once bitten, how many times shy?

There may also be a lesson for us here from our people mover experiments. The design of the Adtranz/Bombardier guide rail system on the BPLRT is quite similar to a monorail, but with the drive wheels mounted adjacent instead on top. So in one fell swoop we can see the disadvantages of monorail, and monorail-based maglev systems (eg. Transrapid) as well as generally-proprietary people mover ones — especially acute in the BPLRT system due to suboptimal guideway design.

Another possible reason for the off-peak suspension of BPLRT Service A could be the reliability of the switches around Bukit Panjang station having to keep moving to divert trains to each loop. If you’ve observed the mechanism, the entire guide rail shifts between a straight piece and a diverging piece — the piston mechanism that does this is visible when looking out the front of the train. Arguably this may not be that different from a typical railway point machine, but the entire guide rail is much heavier which places additional stress on the piston. From a certain point of view, this is similar to a monorail where the entire monorail beam has to shift in order to allow a train to change tracks, be it though a flexible beam or a traverser. But it’s easy to see how this one factor tanks the reliability of the entire system, with the forces applied on the switch mechanism when the LRVs jerk from track to track.

That’s even despite Bombardier swooping in to save the day with a “zero-pain” upgrading that promised to retain support for what was already there and avoiding disruptive shutdowns, putting aside plans to run “autonomous guided vehicles” or gut the thing and replace it with something else like what was done at Changi Airport. In order to retain compatibility, unlike its newer platform, Bombardier promises to retain the existing 3-phase 600V power supply, as well as the monorail-like design nicknamed the “Christmas tree”, whereby newer systems have a stronger guide rail design with 750V DC power instead.

Thus, at the very least we’ll still be stuck with the status quo, especially since the alignment largely puts paid to the idea of running anything longer than two-car trains, unlike in Sengkang or Punggol where three-car trains could still be shoehorned into the system. Worse, given the needed R&D to make such cross-compatibility possible, had Bombardier opted not to do this and instead gave us the hard-sell on the new Innovia 300 platform instead, we’d be screwed anyway and have to consider far more drastic options, options that would not have to be on the table with a standard railway. That last part may perhaps explain the “promotion” of the JRL to a full MRT-technology system.

When it rains it pours

As for so-called BRT, I’ve said this before, but it needs saying again, since we’re talking about lobbyist arguments here. While the proprietary technology argument doesn’t really apply here given how anyone can build a vehicle with rubber tyres capable of running on roads, does it really meet the goals of capacity even with 18m articulated buses? Remember that a good BRT is no different from a tram given its need for segregated rights of way and off-vehicle fare collection, and potentially all-door boarding.

Yes, while unlike people mover systems, a BRT system does not need complete grade separation and thus an increased transfer access penalty. But if I’m going to make them electric, why not get 30–40m long trams with the same benefits and even higher capacity, as well as a rail guidance system to take the stress of maneuvering the vehicle off the driver? Yes, I know the Adelaide O-Bahn exists, but is there really a point in doing that in an urban environment with more closely spaced stops?

The importance of a physical guidance system and perhaps grade separation is all the more important when you consider the weather these past few days (at time of writing), how much of a staple monsoon rains are in Singapore weather, and how climate change means this is here to stay. Even the driverless bus trial at NUS can’t run in wet weather. Remember, the overarching concern is safety of the roads and the skies. And on further reflection, this might explain the somewhat illogical people mover implementation here, where the main focus is to remove the unpredictability of the road from the operation. It can also explain the preference for building MRT lines underground, removing climate unpredictability as well.

So no thanks, tech entrepreneurs. We’ve already got enough to clean up after. And for the bus companies, given our goals of electrifying the existing bus fleet, I think it’s quite fair to say that you’ll get enough business from us, so don’t worry too. Whether you come in good faith or not, you don’t need to send your propagandists to evangelize in the newspapers with fancy pictures full of greenwashing and disinformation.

If it’s useful, it can be considered, but I deeply regret to say that the definition of “usefulness” appears to be very narrow considering our climate, geography, urban landscape, and available financial resources.

As for the rest of you, guess what my gadgetbahn alignment is (source)

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