Value for money
The issue of construction cost alone cannot be examined by itself.
We have to talk about whether we’re getting our money’s worth. After all, 25 billion dollars, which is the rated cost of the entire TEL, is a lot of money.
And it’s not like there’s no problem with this, to be fair to the Transit Costs Project. One might argue that the Finance Ministry themselves may have drawn the line. It may not be so urgent to address with the unique circumstances of ongoing MRT projects (JRL is aboveground, CRL has much less stations for the same route length), but if we’re going to want to do the 9th MRT line with any semblance of timeliness we’ll have to examine this.
Recall that the idea of rail development is to provide new high-capacity ways of carrying people, taking off demand from other overcrowded public transport routes. As long as that task is achieved, and the new stations also capable of reaching the desired public transport accessibility goals, then it may be money well spent.
Of course, greater economic factors such as the rising cost of material and labour, which affects any and all construction work in Singapore, cannot be overlooked as well. As discussed previously on the blog as well, rail projects lack significant ability to take advantage of mass production and prefabrication; especially the CRL.
Let’s start by looking at what the 25 billion dollars gets us.
But we can’t do so without first raising the question, what is the TEL Project? There’s a part of me that says it may be more than the 43km TEL *line* itself. The Thomson side may be quite straightforward, with an awarded contract value of $12.3 billion — whilst the value of the operation contract can be subtracted, cost overruns accounting for the events of the past few years may mean the original number may be a better representation.
But the earmark for the Eastern Region Line in the 2019 Budget specifically claimed that it was meant for *both* the TEL Stages 4 and 5, as well as the DTL 3 Extension, at a cost of nearly $15 billion. The actual spending is likely lower than this, as civil contract values for the whole TEL4 is only around $2.5 billion dollars.
What this means is that quantitative considerations may also need to take into account the DTL 3 Extension around Xilin station built by Contract T313, itself valued at over $800 million dollars due to the mess of tunnels needed to connect both lines to the East Cost Integrated Depot. Not just the DTL, but from the URA Masterplan, the T313 area may also contain provision tunnels for the eventual TEL extension to Changi Airport.
And of course, the depot itself. Perhaps we might even need to throw in the upgrading works at Tanah Merah, likely partly instigated by the need to construct new connection tracks from the EWL to the depot. Where does this bring us? Nearly $3.5 billion, which, again, costs more than the whole TEL4. But was it really necessary? We’ll get back to that later.
But it’s still important to take this in stride and remember that the whole TEL project has to be examined as the sum of its parts, for it is likely that $25 billion may have gotten us far more than just the 43km TEL line. So which other parts are the most tricky?
Not forgetting, of course, that there will have been additional expenses incurred due to the events of the last three years; the only question is how much. Or whether this cost estimate includes the Singapore section of the JB-Singapore RTS as well, since it was previously planned as part of the TEL system; if not the operational line.
Contract T226 for the construction of Marina Bay station and tunnels is valued at $424 million. But this cost is more properly attributed to the station only. I say this because the “tunnels” that were built under this contract isn’t the traditional sense of tunnels, either cut and cover or built by TBM. It is here, in the short stretch undercrossing the NSL and the CCL, between the NSL transfer area and the station proper, that the LTA and their contractor Taisei had to undertake ground freezing with “ice walls” to build the tunnels.
LTA using ice walls for first time in MRT tunnelling of Thomson-East Coast Line
For the first time, the Land Transport Authority is using ice walls to stabilise the earth before conducting MRT tunnel…
This isn’t the only thing that’s very complex about Contract T226. According to SGTrains, TE20 Marina Bay station is 40m deep, third deepest station in the network after Bencoolen and Promenade stations. Neighbouring Shenton Way is fourth place at 38m deep, and as discussed, has the longest escalators in the network. Unlike at Shenton Way, though, at Marina Bay an effort appears to be made to try and keep the levels of the stacked tracks as close together as possible.
But it still seems all the more jarring especially since quite a bit of these works could have been avoided. Quite a fair bit of what we now see with the TEL opening was actually constructed with the Circle Line Extension back in 2012. And back then the station layout was also considerably different — what is now the paid CCL-TEL connection was meant to be the unpaid connection, with a second boarded-up ticket office there. Now it’s gone, demolished to build the current layout.
This was just part of a much larger B2 that has been fenced off throughout the nearly eleven years since the opening of the CCLe. Since the station toilets are down there, lift access to a small part of the level was retained. Of course, TEL was more than that, at the end of the day we got an overengineered Marina Bay station meant to cater to crowds that are orders of magnitude larger than what the station sees today. And those passageways may yet still be opened after a near-complete unpaid walkway system is finished by Contract T2916.
One wonders whether it might have been possible to keep some costs under control by retaining the planned layout. Instead of trying to sandwich three levels of train tracks and passenger linkways, perhaps the TEL could be shallower. Excess space within the CCL station could potentially be used to beef up the paid link to handle the extra passengers that are expected of a three-line interchange.
There would be compromises made had that been done, but perhaps since we have the money, it might have made sense to just build it for 2060, avoiding the mistakes of older stations now past bursting point. Still, one might ask, with the large amount of vertical space, could some of that intermediate depth be commercialized as well? If we’re digging it up, we might as well make money out of it anyway. Other TEL3 stations are doing that anyway.
And more importantly, we have to extract that value with development. The MND would be wise to offer more than one plot in the whole Marina South area every GLS (as they’ve been doing in Lentor, mind you) whilst housing demand still remains strong. If necessary, this can be used as a means to pull down prices as well.
I previously covered this, I know, but now that I think about it there may be a greater story behind it. It could still be that they want the space just in case, and history may yet vindicate them. But as it stands, according to SGTrains Spotters at time of publication, only 14 new R151 trains have been delivered; while 21 legacy trains have moved on to the next great journey. That’s a net loss of 7 trains; and it should be obvious that there shouldn’t be so much of a need for so much extra storage. All the more so when the ITTC is fully completed and future projects can use that as a staging ground as well.
What is this other reason? During the construction of the NEL, space was reserved at Sengkang Depot to eventually accommodate up to 44 trains, which was planned to be fitted out within the next 10 years. It was eventually done in two phases, the first phase (under Contract 716C from LTA AR 2010/11) needed to support the C751C trains which entered service in 2015–16, the second phase for the C851E (NEL) trains likely to enter service next year with the NEL Extension (under Contract 850E).
Mobilizing the necessary contractors three times, each with relatively small work packages, may have overall cost more; even despite maintenance savings from not having to maintain what’s not there over the intervening years. And there’s still the construction cost incurred from building out all that space. Sengkang Depot is at ground level — in a sense — and building out the roof should still be cheaper than digging 20–25m underground.
Things may have been changed this time though, with a more realistic look at what we may eventually need. Their farsightedness paid off with the NEL, but can the same be said for other lines? Even after factoring in future extensions to the DTL (to Sungei Kadut) and the TEL (to Changi Airport), for which we may eventually need a train fleet 120-strong for both lines, the East Coast Integrated Depot may have erred on the side of “too large”, with a capacity for 220 trains, 75 for the DTL alone in addition to the space available at Gali Batu. Perhaps that might make sense if the intention is to find a way to operate four car trains in the distant future, but not so much today. But that got me thinking, could the ECID have been smaller, perhaps avoiding underground works as well, if the capacity was reduced somewhat?
Similarly, a curious quip was made back in 2019 that the CRL Changi East Depot was shifted from an underground depot to an at-grade one, supposedly netting savings of $3.5 billion. It was also announced back then that the depot would be able to house “up to 80” trains; but at the actual award of Contract CR101, this was cut down to 70. Likewise, the additional stabling space near NTU on the JRL isn’t being built now. It could be built later, and they may leave the door open for it, but is that a wise decision?
But why build such large depots? Because we do need the space for trains, even if there’s still an overwhelming excess. These trains do add to the project costs as well. The original projected fleet for the DTL stood at only 73 trains, with 19 more added in two subsequent orders.
Were they necessary? Apparently not, since the current peak requirement at 2.5 minute headways is only around 50-plus trains in service; and this level of service also proved capable of carrying the planned 500k daily riders of the line. This could easily have been settled by the original 73-strong fleet without any addons — the case for the Gali Batu depot expansion (co-located with Gali Batu Bus Terminal) still stands, being to permit the DTL to move out of Kim Chuan Depot.
Of course, the case on the TEL side may be stronger, especially after 2027 when the completion of the JB-Singapore RTS may quickly catapult Woodlands North station into the top 10 of the busiest MRT stations. Possibly with this as one of the factors, despite only having one extra car per train, the forecast for the TEL is double that of the DTL, at 1 million daily riders.
Still, are 91 trains really needed? Even if the TEL were to operate at two minute headways, the current TEL1–3 should take 50 minutes to complete a trip. With 10 stations on the Stage 4/5 section and approximately two minutes between each station on average, it might be fair to say that the completed TEL will take 70 minutes for a full journey, 140 minutes back. That’s only around 70 trains for such a service level.
Most importantly, rail operations have fixed operations costs no matter how many trains you run, such as those for ventilation and control systems, and those fixed costs also need to be accounted for. Likewise, a large fleet will spread testing, commissioning, and maintenance teams thin, even if the low utilization means mileage-based maintenance milestones aren’t hit that quickly.
Since the space is built and the vehicles purchased, we might as well use the trains to run more service and optimize the usage of our public transport system, eliminating unnecessary modal competition especially with flexible working and reduced demand towards the CBD. It doesn’t make sense to start moral panics about shorter train lengths when we still don’t run a high enough level of service on our newest MRT lines to justify asking whether we need longer trains to begin with. There is still space to add train service and the resources to do so.
Whether that’s happening isn’t really a topic for here, though. I hope to look more at this, hopefully within the month, when the LTA have hopefully managed to drop their farecard data for December 2022.