The curious case of the JRL, revisited
With all contracts awarded, we start to get a better idea of what the line will look like.
Years ago I wrote a first-look reaction at the JRL’s mode of operations, but those are only with station footprints. When the Bahar contract was awarded, I analyzed the impact of the design of that station as well. And on May 18, the LTA awarded the final contract for the construction of JW5 station, which puts in the final piece of the puzzle.
Most of what is left to look at appears to be how a fair bit of the big dreams that the LTA had originally planned got mercilessly cut, and perhaps their impact on service quality and user experience. As the government fiscal situation tightens (and that’s why they’re raising the GST, is it not?) and supply situations deteriorate for raw materials, it makes sense to attempt to cut some of the things we can afford to live without. But what are they?
That last point has a story to it, so we look at it first. Originally tendered out as Contract J115, this final contract was subsequently cancelled without granting the award to any bidder, and the LTA subsequently re-released it as Contract J115A with a glaring omission — based on publicly available information, the originally-planned stabling facility behind NTU’s Experimental Medicine Building was removed with no mention of it at the contract award.
While I discussed the necessity of that facility in February 2021, but it may be likely that the LTA’s own value engineering studies alongside a need to cut cost independently resulted in the decision not to build it at this point. It makes sense, since only 62 JRL trains will be purchased. Tengah Depot will be able to house 100 four-car trains, which means more than enough space for a planned 62-strong fleet and perhaps even space for additional trains should the West Coast Extension happen.
Had they built it, this would not have been cheap to build, requiring not only extensive clearing of forested land, but potentially also terraforming in order to create sufficiently open and flat ground to build the facility on. Perhaps if Tengah Depot was half the size it was planned to be, it might have been easier to justify such an expansion.
But there are easier short term and long term solutions. In the short term, CBTC signalling solutions should be able to permit full speed movement in the wrong direction. By simply adding crossovers to permit a direct move from Jurong West to Gek Poh stations going the wrong way around Bahar, it is easy to launch trains towards the NTU area, and perhaps an extended overrun track can be used to store some of the trains that would have gone into the facility.
And in the longer term, as I proposed before, it could also be considered to send the JRL towards Gul Circle, sharing any additional facilities needed with the CRL’s western depot near Raffles Country Club perhaps resulting in overall land savings. There’s also a transport benefit with such an extension as we’ll quantify below.
It should result in quite a sum of savings, but since MOT now only tells us how much is being spent on rail expansion in general and not how much is allocated to a particular project, it’s hard to gauge the true impact of this one change on the JRL.
Things that are nice to have
The second thing that has ended up on the cutting room floor is the grand roof replacement at Jurong East station as part of the JRL. I’m not sure if this is a direct cause of the winning bidder for the JRL Jurong East station submitting a bid that’s $65 million lower than the other bidder (probably not), but this might have proven low hanging fruit as well.
Replacing the roof looks to be a complex job, though I’m no civil engineer and can’t say for sure. This could mostly have been viewed as a vanity project so the overall station fits in design-language wise with the new JRL extension. There are (or were) some tangible benefits but they might have been questionable at best, so perhaps it might make more sense to can the whole thing and just add new bits for the JRL.
It has to be said that the existing NSEWL platforms are considerably narrow, and the many columns holding up the platform roof don’t really help. While the crowding situation has improved due to improved service levels, it may not be by much, and perhaps the added passenger flow from the JRL and Tengah New Town could cause the platforms to fill up again. Removing the roof and replacing it with a new roof to be supported from outside the structure allows much of the current platform columns to be removed.
Want to know what this feels like? Visit a modern elevated station built after 2005, such as Pioneer or Joo Koon. it would probably be fair to say that the space taken up by the columns on the current Jurong East platforms and having to keep areas around them free, could be used for more effective queue lines or something.
But is that worth $65 million? That might probably have been a question asked, with the answer leaning more towards a no. That said, there’s probably nothing paint and adding additional escalators can’t do, and with the signage strategy being implemented at Outram Park EWL platforms, perhaps keeping the supports might help somewhat with wayfinding. Flow control could perhaps be helped by designating some platforms as exit/transfer only and redirecting JRL passengers to less-used platform faces such as the current Platform B.
Crossing the gap
Initially it was assumed that cross-platform transfers would be possible at JW1 Gek Poh for those who did not want to take the hike down the linkbridge at Bahar. Looks like that assumption was wrong too, with Gek Poh taking the worst approach to use side platforms. This requires two changes of level to get from one platform to the other. On the contrary, even if they can’t fit a regular island platform, a well-designed stacked side platform station like in Taipei would only require a single change of level for passengers switching directions.
The issue now is that JW2 Tawas station will also feature side platforms, which leaves largely no choice but to use the Bahar linkbridge — which may not that much of an issue in JRL1, but when the NTU extension opens then it becomes an awkward trek out to JW3 Nanyang Gateway, the first station in NTU. At least by demolishing Pioneer Primary, some of those trips can be made slightly faster because the train doesn’t have to slow down and make sharp turns to travel between Gek Poh and Tawas stations.
And of course, another problem previously identified is the seasonality of demand to NTU. During NTU terms, one can expect trains to be filled up, though presumably not to the sort of breaking point seen on 179 today requiring “express” 179A to be operated. There’s a good chance that demand will totally collapse during NTU vacations, leaving only staff and those taking summer school, which is a considerably smaller population. But has the LTA equipped the JRL Operator with sufficient flexibility to reverse trains at JW2, if it sees the need to?
Put this along with the fact that it is all but confirmed within the Long Term Plan that the CRL will terminate at Gul Circle station. Any trip from the CRL at Jurong Pier to NTU is going to have to pass through 8–9 JRL stations and require an interchange at Bahar on the return trip. It’s not likely this is going to save much time compared to if one were to take the CRL all the way to Gul Circle and change there, or even do nothing for congestion relief as passengers change to the EWL at Boon Lay as they would today.
It thus makes sense to me that should the JRL be extended from NTU to Gul Circle, it also gives us an opportunity to break the service routes at JW2 station. With regular services from Jurong Pier not going so far into NTU, allowing passengers to remain on the train while it plies the trip to Tawas might not be such a bad idea after all, mitigating the lack of good interchanges.
While it would probably be best to rebuild Bahar and perhaps Boon Lay into 4-track stations allowing the NTU branch to have fully independent operations like the Jurong East branch, that’s unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. Still, West India Quay DLR was upgraded to ease operations through the area, so don’t rule anything out.
Lastly, of course, there’s the West Coast Extension. Given the little info released since the announcement in 2016, and its absence from the Long Term Plan, one might be forgiven for thinking it was silently cancelled. And it just might be, who knows?
I believe the main issue here is development, or lack of. The decision to reclaim the campus of Tanglin Secondary School and route the CRL through there may also play a part in it. The CRL2 alignment is being planned to pass through the Tanglin Secondary/West Coast Market area alongside some new development, although it does miss most of the HDB estates along West Coast Road. It could be possible to just use buses to bridge the gap, since many residents already take a bus to Clementi or Jurong East station and those still not near the CRL station could likewise still take a bus.
Yet it could be argued that a limited extension perhaps down to NUS/Kent Ridge bus terminal could work to serve these HDB estates and perhaps condos. But once you get to NUS you’ve already built two-thirds of the route between Pandan Reservoir and Haw Par Villa. Might as well finish it.
The last possibility could be to further extend this route from Haw Par Villa into the redeveloped Pasir Panjang container terminal. With the Long-Term Plan calling for more land reclamation over and above the existing terminal space, there might be some use for some lighter rail system within the area if it’s not possible to send any heavy-capacity MRT line directly into the area.
All these put together could point to whether there’s actually a need to build out the West Coast Extension. Probably not for now, but when would be a good time? Maybe even if the JRL is the right mode for it, or should bigger trains be used? Perhaps we don’t have the answers to those questions now.
And without those answers, it might not be worth building the extension, especially if cost-cutting means it could be a better idea to build an interchange at Jurong Town Hall where both CRL2 and JRL are likely to intersect as well. If the CRL2 PQ exercise is to be believed, with no call for contractors with experience in building elevated structures, even the originally-predicted one stop extension from JE7 station may be off the table too.