The Toa Payoh Bus Plan

From the Red Line
Published in
9 min readJan 28


Why is the Toa Payoh Bus Plan of 1983 important for us to look at?

Based on what I can find, it is the most well-documented example of the feeder system in which many current elements of our bus network were introduced, with several still existing even today, nearly 40 years later. So we need to look at the Toa Payoh Bus Plan, as well as its predecessors in other new towns including Ang Mo Kio, in order to understand the vision that SBS was trying to implement.

Toa Payoh is also important in that it was likely also the first (and only?) HDB-developed new town that would see a reboot of bus routes from the old way to the new one. Heck, Queenstown doesn’t even have a bus interchange, even considering how HDB were the original builders of bus interchanges, as part of town centre development back in the 80s. They could have built one there but didn’t, aren’t, and probably won’t.

Of course, much has happened in 40 years too, so we’ll also look at how reality has caught up with this framework and what should potentially be done about it.

How it started

In 1980, SBS had a major problem. They were wasting diesel and time.

It was subsequently found out that 22% of buses assigned to Toa Payoh services were wasting time looping around the estate. Bear in mind that Toa Payoh, even today, is still a much smaller new town than Yishun or Woodlands, though density may be catching up. What this meant back that is that out of an average length of 46km, 10km was spent making big detours around Toa Payoh estate. So out of 379 buses needed to circulate amongst those routes, 87 were making rounds somewhere in Toa Payoh town.

That was considered bad, so SBS looked to the hub and spoke practice they had already put in place in other towns such as Clementi and Ang Mo Kio, and introduced several feeder services to blanket the estate. Trunk services would be consolidated at a new Toa Payoh interchange and then take the most direct route out of the town. Toa Payoh was not the first, and it would not be the last town, to have services planned in such a manner.

These feeder services were also designated as “one man operation” with a flat fare — back then, with bus conductors, there was a need to ensure passengers paid the fare for how long they travelled and actually travelled that distance. One man operation with flat fares meant everyone could just pay the same thing into the box with not much of a need for enforcement of distance travelled, reducing the time taken to board a bus at a stop.

Express services were also introduced at this time in Toa Payoh. These would be Services 140 and 141, that would pick up passengers from the bus interchange and make a straight shot to the CBD and Orchard Road. Back in the days with no rail service, this would be very necessary.

It’s not that SBS did this to save a lot of money either. At the end of the day, it didn’t make a lot of extra money mainly due to the cheaper feeder bus fares resulting in lower revenue offsetting the savings in bus and driver utilization. But at least it might have been of some comfort to the then management, that the cutover to the hub and spoke model in Toa Payoh also resulted in somewhat reduced competition, as the Scheme B routes were cut back with the opening of Toa Payoh bus interchange as well.

How it went

Then the MRT opened between Yio Chu Kang and Toa Payoh in November 1987. One month later, SBS said they were losing $800 a day on Service 159, then travelling only between Ang Mo Kio and Toa Payoh via Lorong Chuan. That was because an average of 1600 daily passengers (each paying a 50 cent fare) that formerly took Service 159 shifted to the MRT service, finding it faster than taking Service 159.

Service 159 was not the only service affected by the MRT opening. To add to SBS’ woes in December, the rest of the Phase 1 MRT line to Outram Park opened that month as well. Demand for SBS’ trunk services, predictably, went down. By anywhere between 40 per cent to a whopping 68 per cent. After all, the feeder services of the Toa Payoh Bus Plan brought passengers to the interchange anyway, and the MRT station was built in the same location as the bus interchange allowing for intermodal transfers.

So SBS, as a for-profit entity, had to move quickly to avoid bleeding even more money. Services 140 and 141 from Toa Payoh and several more CBD-bound services from Ang Mo Kio were shut down in January 1988, a month after the opening of the MRT Phase 1 to Outram Park, now providing direct trains to Orchard Road (and Shenton Way through Tanjong Pagar station).

It’s very easy to see why this happened. The development of feeder bus routes in the 1980s centralized bus routes around the large hub interchanges. So when the MRT opened, with stations at the hub interchange, it’s right there. If you had to change anyway to get to Ang Mo Kio or the CBD, you might as well go down into the MRT station and take a fast electric train, compared to the meandering Service 159, or to get stuck in highway jams aboard Services 140 and 141.

They put up with this for 14 years, but at least in 2001 they eventually extended Service 159 to Sengkang; in the days before the CCL it’s easy to see why someone might take the whole route to Sengkang. But in the days of competition instead of cooperation, its easy to see why SBS would want to stick with the old route.

How’s it going

There are two major things here. Firstly, the feeder-trunk distinction introduced by SBS, initially due to different fare collection policies, has remained even despite the modernization of fare collection towards cashless payment methods first with farecards then with the ez-link/CEPAS cards, eliminating the procedural necessity for flat fares on feeder services.

This feeder-trunk distinction affects how we plan routes as well, and has always been a problem. In 1984, there was no East-West Line, and there was no bus interchange in Tampines. That meant that residents in the developed areas of Tampines were required to take Service 18 to Bedok interchange where they could take another bus to town. With it being a trunk service, the fares were much higher at 40 cents compared to the feeder fare of 15 cents, even if at the time Service 18 was spiritually a feeder service. Residents, naturally, were not amused. There were more in that time, such as Jurong East being reliant on Clementi bus interchange before the construction of its own.

But yet the same issue still remains today with services like 860, 983, and 979, which bring passengers to an alternate MRT station on a different line just across planning area boundaries, just as Service 18 used to do. But to be fair, the distance fare system has gone a long way to blunt the difference between trunk and feeder fares, between the 3.2km base fare and the smaller steps.

Even in Toa Payoh this can be an issue. Caldecott station was not intended to open with the CCL4/5 at first. They later changed their minds in 2008 to open Caldecott (then named Thomson), and feeder service 235 from Toa Payoh interchange was amended to bring passengers to the CCL station. This lack of connections meant that Caldecott was one of the least-used stations on the CCL, no mean feat considering how quiet the Stage 5 section is. Still, it might have been justifiable at a network level, in order not to inflame a rather tenuous overcrowding situation which had quickly developed on the CCL4/5.

The area around Caldecott in 2009 — good luck getting to Toa Payoh! (left: Google Earth Pro, right: NUS Libmaps)

With TEL, more passengers have found that they can change to the TEL there, so the usage of the station as an interchange has gone up. Likewise, the area around Caldecott station is seeing significant density build-up with several high-rise BTO projects that are likely to rely on Toa Payoh town centre for amenities too. Any concerns about CCL overcrowding are likely to be relieved in the medium term with new trains, and in the longer term with the CRL.

So while Toa Payoh is now served by three MRT lines, is the internal bus network ready to support the increased connections made possible by this? Toa Payoh residents might want improved direct connections to CCL and TEL so they can potentially bypass the interchanges at Bishan and Orchard, and the bus network — not just the feeder network — has to adapt.

This isn’t just an issue in Toa Payoh. Bedok might need a reevaluation of feeders and trunks as well to make the most out of the Bedok South ITH if and when that happens. And Tampines is already being dragged kicking and screaming into this multi-nodal future with the opening of Tampines North bus interchange. Only three services operate out of Tampines North for now, but there’s always space for more, and someone eventually will have to ask the question of what else can be moved here to relieve congestion at Tampines Central.

How it will go?

As we’ve seen, the Toa Payoh Bus Plan, its predecessors, and concepts from that era such as the feeder-trunk distinction, all date from an age of competition over cooperation, with a vastly different fare collection system. Things have changed, and there are questions we need to ask today.

First we have to ask ourselves, what is the new role of the bus system? Even the feeder bus networks within new towns have to be questioned as new MRT lines result in new stations being opened in the periphery of current towns —apart from DTL and TEL, CRL will do this in Pasir Ris and Ang Mo Kio too. These stations will need connecting service, and will also provide connections within the HDB towns.

There were a lot more terminals in the olden days, and SBS’ service consolidation moves saw their major trunk routes merged into bus interchanges like at Toa Payoh. As described above, the early MRT system made an effort to stop at the major bus hubs, even building new ones such as at Jurong East and Yio Chu Kang where there weren’t.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t really happening with the medium capacity lines. With few access options available, there is little incentive to shift demand towards the new medium-capacity lines; and passengers in the same general direction will just continue to crowd the older lines. Making any new options gets harder with the lack of terminal facilities, which forces either deadheading or circuituous routings, such as in the case of Services 114 and 860.

They do appear to be finding ways, though. It is likely that whenever Buangkok ITH is completed, service 114 will be rerouted inside and remove the deadheading to Compassvale. Likewise, recently Service 18 was taken out of Bedok Bus Interchange and sent to Bedok North Ave 4 to provide a DTL option for residents there; Service 18 now uses the bus depot as a layover point.

Perhaps we might yet see one or two more trunk routes out of Toa Payoh amended to pass Caldecott station in a similar fashion to what I proposed earlier for Yishun. And reversing some of these historical wrongs, some of the terminal closures might even have spiritual replacements, such as the Beauty World ITH basically being the successor of a terminal that used to be there.

But in order to do this, it means we have to commit to, and to accept, a public transport network revolving around short bus trips and changing to the MRT. And perhaps with a bus network revolving more around shorter trips, eventually we may be able to charge flat fares on buses, as originally mooted in 1976, with the accompanying operational improvements this allows.

Or one can always pay for premium bus services or bus pooling, a sector which could see significant growth as demand for car replacement buses remain whilst the LTA has little interest in serving this market through the public transport system. Just as how night services are now operated by A&S Transit.



From the Red Line

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