Sense and senses
How do the disabled ride public transport?
Things might be easier for us with all five senses and full freedom of movement. What about those without?
Among the firsts that the Bukit Panjang LRT introduced was full lift accessibility throughout the line. This was accompanied with the Changi Airport Extension, with airport travellers with heavy luggage needing to use the lifts for obvious reasons, and all other rail projects afterward. In 2002 (though possibly earlier), the LTA also embarked on a project to install publicly accessible lifts at all its existing stations, a project completed in 2007.
While there were already lifts accessible at platform level, those went into back of house areas and were presumably used for moving material to and from platform level — most famously, to bring cash up to the old money train that used to run between NSEWL stations. Some of these lifts may also have been removed in favour of the new public-accessible lifts.
Presumably at a similar time, the NEL introduced tactile guide strips for the visually impaired to use. And the introduction of wheelchair spaces in trains and buses around the mid-2000s largely “completed” the adaptation of the public transport system for the mobility impaired. There can still be additional steps, like actually keeping the data for lifts under maintenance actually updated, but it’s a start. And this might be a greater symptom of how the open data works at the LTA.
Mind the gap
But it’s not all smooth sailing for wheelchair users. There have been complaints about the size of the platform gap especially on the older lines, especially at underground stations. They’re not unjustified — the LTA once said that gaps between the train and platform are 100mm wide on the NEL, and 110mm wide on the NSEWL. That’s big enough for a child’s foot to get trapped inside the gap, or to present considerable difficulty to wheelchair or other mobility device users, so it deserves to be examined.
In any case, this is an issue on the CCL as well. Fortunately, the LTA also have an aversion to curved platforms, so at least it won’t get any worse.
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There’s actually a distinction to be drawn between old platforms and new platforms. Old elevated platforms built under the Initial System did have wider platform gaps, which were narrowed by using the orange strips as seen in the picture below. At this point one can probably say, “won’t it be easy to just remove the orange strips and use gap fillers on trains, like other lines do?”
My answer would be that both might have to coexist. That’s because newer stations beginning from Expo on the Changi Airport line onwards appear to use a newer standard that narrows the platform gap even further, as can be seen on the TWE platform in the above picture. This can also be seen by how the platform gaps on DTL are a relatively tiny 36mm, through a combination of train-mounted gap fillers and just having the platform closer in.
So what is the exact problem with the design of the old NSEWL platform doors that preclude the installation of platform gap fillers? There is a guide at the bottom of the door that ensures the door slides back and forth along the right track. On all models of full-height platform door except the DTL Faiveley ones, this guide slides along the platform edge itself, physically obstructing anywhere one might one to install gap fillers similar to the orange ones.
That said, I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Part of the bottom guide could easily be rebuilt in order to protrude out a bit more and narrow the gap, in a similar style to how the DTL Faiveley platform doors are designed. This could be done as a part of a general modernization of the platform doors. Or perhaps if they want to totally replace the PSD structure, the new structure could be built to the newer, narrower standards (as they are at Marina South Pier and Bishan?)
Another option that can probably be explored in the meantime is whether rubber gap fillers can be fitted onto older trains — I don’t think it should be that difficult to equip them on the doorsill plates as things currently stand. It appears that that was precisely what was done with the C751A trains, both refurbished and unrefurbished. Let’s see what happens with the R151 trains, although as it stands, that doesn’t look likely.
Building a case
But why does this matter? In short, apart from the safety aspects of a narrower platform gap, it means that the system is more accessible to wheelchair users and such, who largely can travel through the system unaided with lifts provisioned relatively generously across the network. This should be put in comparison with buses where the bus driver must interact with the wheelchair ramp to allow wheelchair users into the bus.
And on the MTR, arguably an extreme case, station staff are required to manually deploy ramps too to help bridge their relatively larger gaps. We can ill afford that manpower, and on the lines with smaller trains and high frequency, we can ill afford the additional time spent to wait for a wheelchair user to maneuver across a ramp or a large platform gap. This would also get in the way of other users, especially looking at where wheelchair spaces on trains tend to be; and perhaps that those needing boarding assistance may not necessarily be at the designated wheelchair space.
What has to be looked at is the sort of wheels available on wheelchairs and mobility scooters on the market. A quick Google Images survey shows that motorized wheelchairs tend to have smaller wheels than manual wheelchairs; albeit offset by a more powerful motor. And while sure, the motor may be able to push the wheels across the gap, someone using weak hands to power a manual wheelchair does not.
But don’t take my word for it. Perhaps you might want to speak with station staff at stations commonly used by the elderly — such as Outram Park, Toa Payoh, and Novena, all in close proximity to estates with a higher proportion of senior citizens, or hospitals commonly frequented by them such as SGH and Tan Tock Seng. Training might only go so far, whereby wheelchair and mobility scooter users are taught to board trains facing backwards, so the larger drive wheels of their mobility device cross the gap first.
When I was in San Francisco, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, there was something they did in all three cities that we don’t really do. Robot/recorded voices announcing next train arrivals at platforms. Under US law, SF Muni and other transit agencies were even required to provide a speaker at bus stops and on the outside of buses and the Muni streetcars, announcing which routes the vehicles were running on and when they would be coming.
Singapore has almost none of these on a consistent basis; again the exception being the Bukit Panjang LRT. There, they might as well, considering how often the in-train announcements on the vehicles there are muffled or just outright don’t work, and the station announcements play a double role of announcing the train route and when doors are closing. But you might hear them at some MRT stations as well, depending on luck; again, bears repeating that it’s not consistent systemwide.
Noise pollution concerns could potentially be mitigated by using less powerful speakers placed around the accessible boarding positions only. But this also means we cannot get the second benefit of train departure announcements — that it could serve to dissuade people trying to run for the train as doors are closing. This is done, again, in Hong Kong and also on the Bukit Panjang LRT. It might be worth considering whether this should be retained on the LRT and introduced to other lines as well.
Buses take a slightly different approach. A currently-ongoing trial requires bus passengers to join a private testing group and then install an app that helps them to flag down the bus; informing the driver of their condition as well so the driver can lend tailored support. But with an ageing, not so tech-literate population, does that really make so much sense? Perhaps our accessibility initiatives need to be less targeted.
They already have something similar at traffic lights — the Green Man Plus system. Perhaps readers can be installed at bus stops for those who need it, maybe with some kind of system for selecting the desired bus route to board. This means infrastructure, but is likely to be easier than getting seniors to use an app, and perhaps can be integrated with nextbus displays as well.
But the rest of us have a part to play as well. Whilst there may be some space for processes to be improved, we can all be more understanding when the bus driver has to perform the necessary steps to allow a wheelchair user to board/alight from the bus. We can also be more aware of facilities such as guide dogs for the visually handicapped.
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I’m not sure how much that Dementia Go-To Points and other similar initiatives may help as well, but it’s there, and probably worth mentioning because of that.