From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Paying one’s way across the Causeway

Before 2027, there might be things that need to be done.

While stuck in a Causeway jam, I was quite surprised to read of the different tolls at the Causeway and at the Second Link. Using the Second Link can be five times as expensive as the Causeway!

Why does this matter? Simply put, it makes the Causeway a more attractive option for everyone. At only 80 cents northbound and no toll southbound, the Causeway toll on both sides is significantly lesser than the Second Link, which charges $1.10 during off-peak periods and $2.10 during peak periods in each direction — so double that for the real toll.

It should be clear that not doing anything to the Causeway means lesser Singaporean money being spent in Johor. If you don’t want to take this from me, perhaps some Malaysian minister might be a more authoritative source; but that is of course assuming that the Malaysians can be bothered to actually do something about it apart from well, you know, doing what they do best.

But in general, I think the bigger issue is how much it costs to cross the Causeway, using what modes.

Bring balance to the Force

A similar situation exists in Hong Kong across the three tunnels enabling road access to Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbour:

Now, there’s one big difference here in that both sides of the water body are within the same legal jurisdiction, unlike the Singapore-Malaysia border crossings. In theory the Hong Kong government should be able to do whatever is necessary to manage congestion, especially since they have three tunnels for a much smaller car population whilst we have only two.

One major mistake made by the HK government, though, is the giving up of the rights to set the tunnel tolls as the tunnels were constructed under public-private partnerships. Consequently, in order to turn a profit and pay back their construction loans, the newer tunnels, especially the Western Harbour Crossing, had much higher tolls at first.

This ended up discouraging usage of the new tunnels and many just stuck to the original Cross-Harbour Tunnel. Consequently, with control reasserted over the Eastern Harbour Crossing in 2016, the HK government came up with a proposal to attempt to equalize tunnel tolls across all three tunnels. It backfired, but mainly because both the government-run tunnels would have seen significant toll increases in order to push vehicles towards the higher-capacity Western Harbour Crossing.

Singapore and Malaysia appear to have made the same mistake, where the Second Link is less heavily used than the Causeway (by orders of magnitude?) due to the higher tolls and the more inconvenient location of the Second Link; which means most personal vehicle travel still goes through the Causeway anyway.

If you want to fight a war on vehicles, you should not focus on cars alone— motorcycles may be enough of a menace as well. And motorcycles pay nothing to cross the border, apart from the VEP requirements. Then again I guess the additional cost of a VEP might be outweighed by the fact that foreign-registered vehicles need pay only a flat fee to pass through ERP gantries, unlike locals. Any toll strategy should be designed to improve the usage of public transport, so we can be ready for the RTS opening in 2027.

A famous picture

I think we’ve all heard of that famous picture of car drivers, cyclists, and a bus standing in the same street. Thus, I am happy to report that at least the last time I went on the Causeway (a Sunday), a lane was set aside for buses and trucks all the way to the Malaysian CIQ. At the expense of private cars, although I suppose on a weekend the cars are mostly Singaporeans going up to Johor to shop.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, you can check the Causeway cameras. All camera screenshots here were taken on Saturday 6th August, arguably a worst-case scenario for 2022 so far considering National Day is coming. Take leave on the right days and you have at least a four day long weekend. But that said, this might be more reflective of pre-2020 conditions.

source checkpoint.sg

What does this mean? Depending on how often this heavy vehicles lane is enforced, and manpower willing, it might become possible to operate a high-frequency bus shuttle. I know I said this before, and in the short period of time between the reopening of the Causeway on April 1 and the restart of public bus services on May 1, a bus shuttle within the Causeway restricted area was actually run by Causeway Link.

The reason why this was difficult to get working is actually more on the Singapore end — the narrow passageway between Woodlands Train Checkpoint and Woodlands Checkpoint proper can get nasty. During that month before public cross-border buses resumed, they were forced, on occasion, to redirect the cross-border buses into Woodlands Checkpoint’s alighting bays likely to reduce the load on that bridge. So perhaps that might not be such a good idea, unless one draws bus lanes along Woodlands Road all the way to Kranji MRT station.

Secondly, the Singapore MOT logic behind increasing ERP charges is that it’s supposedly cheaper than the alternative — engines idling along congested roads result in unnecessary fuel burn; and fuel costs money. With this dedicated lane, it actually means that more cars have to squeeze into the remaining space — especially the two-lane bottleneck next to JB Sentral, which is shared by both cars and buses. Reserving a lane for buses means we’re down to just one car lane, and funny things can thus happen.

source checkpoint.sg

That means, all the more, it’s necessary to fight the war on vehicles on the Causeway by reducing the amount of cars and perhaps motorbikes, thus getting more to take public transport. Car-centric development in JB means there’s lesser gains that can be made, since after you walk out to JB Sentral you still need to call a Grab or something anyway, but there’s still some gains to be had here.

A switch in tolling is just partway there, but according to MOT’s logic, probably should be done to relieve Causeway congestion in general. Then we can talk about alternatives, through public transport fare policy.

Every operator to himself

Out of slightly under 10k possible seats on the Shuttle Tebrau, it is claimed that on average, only 7000 of those seats are actually filled. I like to tell people that once you take the Shuttle, it changes your life and you lose the ability to sit patiently in a Causeway jam; at least it did for me. But there’s a catch. Tickets are expensive, with the cheapest round trip ticket at RM21 (RM16 + RM5). That’s not great especially if one expects Malaysian commuters to use the Shuttle.

Based on a cursory glance of the KTM booking system, it appears that the Shuttle is much busier on weekends than it is on weekdays — potentially pointing to the fact that the main audience of the Shuttle are likely to be Singaporeans day-tripping to JB and thus more than able to afford the RM21 round-trip fare for an occasional trip.

This leaves regular Malaysian commuters to take Causeway Link, which costs half that to Kranji station (SG$2.60 + RM2.60 = around RM11), or the even cheaper Singapore public buses (SG$1.25 + SG$1.25 = RM8). That’s before considering that Singapore public buses offer transfer benefits to people continuing their journey on the Singapore public transport network through the distance fares system, making the cost of an overall journey even cheaper compared to taking CW buses and then transferring to the MRT system.

Here’s a chart to sum it up

So when Malaysian political office holders claim the RTS fare will be kept affordable, they should be held to the Causeway Link fares as a minimum benchmark, and not to the KTM shuttle. That said, CW fares are still on the high side, especially for Malaysian commuters to Singapore who can benefit from the significant fuel subsidies offered to Malaysians in order to drive their vehicles into Singapore. Shifting them to public transport may need a rethinking of how cross-border buses are operated.

Interestingly, the jointly-operated cross-harbour services in Hong Kong also provide an example of how this can be done. Same routes, same fares, just different bus operators running each trip. In theory CW could strike up an agreement with Transitlink or something to collect fares according to the Singapore system and then receive payment based on bus trips operated or passengers carried, but politics might muck this up.

As long as this isn’t fixed, chances are that capacity imbalances are likely to remain. Now you can pay with Visa cards on CW so it ain’t that bad?

We can’t always have what we want

Ideally the RTS should be onboarded into the Singapore public transport fare system as well; but if we can’t do it with Causeway Link, will it even be possible to do so with the RTS?

At least the good part is that the fare collection system for the RTS Link will be supplied by MSI Global —which happens to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Singapore LTA. This means, in theory, that if they work together with TransitLink, it might yet be possible to integrate the RTS Link fare collection system with that of Singapore’s public transport.

This could be quite easily done as long as the RTS Link uses the same fare collection mechanisms as our Singapore MRT. Like at Bukit Panjang, Tampines, and Newton, it’s possible for the faregates at Woodlands North (both RTS and TEL) to be programmed to permit a continuation of journey if an exit from the other station is detected within the past 15 minutes.

But this may not necessarily mean that the RTS will be tightly leashed to Singapore public transport fares, even if that’s the best option. Under Singapore distance fares at time of writing (August 2022), the 4km RTS Link would charge a minimum of $1.05 to Woodlands North.

If integration is considered, adding on the 1.4km distance from Woodlands North to Woodlands interchange would take you up to $1.25 — the same as riding bus 950 from the CIQ to Woodlands interchange. It’s possible that RTS Operations could tack on an additional surcharge, similar in concept to our express fares and MTR’s surcharges for using Lo Wu or Lok Ma Chau stations. I would argue, though, that there’s a case for retaining the Singapore fare scales with the RTS so that it can remain effective against cross-border buses.

One can dream, but perhaps more personal vehicle-hostile policy at the border crossings might also find Transit Malaysia some more allies in the battle to improve public transport within the Johor area. But that’s a totally different problem out of the remit of this blog.

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yuuka

yuuka

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.