From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

What about the LTMP?

It’s out.

And frankly, from a pure efficiency and productivity standpoint, I’m quite disappointed with what’s in the report. It is, however, important to note that this masterplan is heavy on the “heartware” — inclusiveness, greenery, community. Which I’d be applauding, albeit very hesitantly. It might sound harsh, but I think we still have a lot of the basics to work on first.

There are questions I had that were answered, there were questions that were not. And there are some pretty major elephants in the room that someone will have to deal with.

The cardinal rule of productivity

We’re all aware of what the minister said about workers having to be cheaper, better, and faster. In terms of land transport, obviously the first one is pretty much out of the question with the constant fare hikes. You know what they say about drumsticks and whole chickens.

“Better” is of course subjective, depending on who you are and what you need. “Better” for an old person may include more seating on buses and trains so they can rest; “better” for families may mean more spaces for things such as strollers (we’ll look at these later); “better” for me, since I look at things from a bean counter perspective, means the efficiency of the network as a whole. Not just how much time it takes for you or me to get from A to B, but how well it can do that job carrying a few new towns’ worth of people.

“Faster” is clearly on the LTA’s wishlist as well, with their goal of “20 minute towns, 45 minute city”. But how well have they set out to do that? For one, autonomous, dynamically routed vehicles are clearly the next big thing in terms of efficiency, since they can get you from point to point with no pesky transfers, but then if everybody decides to use that, you end up having to wait for 10–15 minutes to get a hire-podcar, or there are so many on the roads we get reminded of why the COE policy exists in the first place (as well as regulating all those bicycle companies that had a habit of imploding)

To that extent, I’d have to say I hold mixed feelings.

Filling in the holes

Projects under the LTMP 2040 (source: LTA)

For heavy rail expansion, this LTMP brings us a few things:

  • Construction of Brickland and Sungei Kadut stations on the NSL (infill stations, they’ll be like Canberra)
  • Extension of DTL to the new Sungei Kadut station
  • Extension of the TEL to Changi terminals 1/2/3, then over the existing airport branch line to Tanah Merah
  • Feasibility studies for a new line, connecting the north, northeast and south, and filling in some gaps in the central area. I’ll call this the Seletar-North Coast Line.

And that’s about it. Some pundits were saying that there was a lot more they could have announced, but I guess we can take what we have. It does fill in the connectivity holes (aka transit deserts), as well as reach some new places that the URA plans to develop in the Draft Masterplan — such as Sembawang/Canberra, Whampoa, Kallang, Tengah, and the Southern Waterfront. Brickland is an easy one — it offers connections from the developing area around the Brickland Road/Bukit Batok Road junction.

With the extension of the DTL, it seems obvious to me that the DTL’s role as the northwestern “trunk line” is now final. Of course, you’re probably asking “why go to all the trouble of building a whole new interchange?” It’s simple — there’s little space at Yew Tee, which would mean a Bencoolen-esque full road closure and/or lots of juggling, and Kranji station is simply too far. This DTL extension would give you at most 2 additional stations in between — you’d need 3 to go to Kranji. That’s beside the peak hour demand generated by the industrial area surrounding the station.

Confirmation of the extension of the TEL (it’s not news because they were talking about it in 2013) solves a big question I’ve been having for a while, and also generates some interesting ideas. Perhaps you could throw in an express service, and let’s see if the RTS + TEL to Changi will be able to outrun the trip to Senai Airport from JB Sentral.

Of course, this is assuming they’ve managed to solve the problem of Changi Airport T1/2/3 station platforms not being able to accept the 5-door TEL trains. In short, the station’s supports are designed in such a way that pairs of doors on the NSEWL fleet are aligned with gaps in the supporting pillars. On the TEL, this means that the middle door will just open into the tunnel wall, creating a safety risk. One such way to do that is selective door operation such that the middle door doesn’t open at all, but that’s a band aid at best.

Now for the big fish — the Seletar-North Coast line. This gets its name because it’s a combination of two proposals as seen in the 2001 Concept Plan — the Seletar line, and the North Coast line. The North Coast line was supposed to be an outer orbital linking Woodlands/Sembawang to Pasir Ris through Punggol, but the Punggol-Pasir Ris section was given to the CRL’s Punggol branch, planned to open in 2031. So this new line takes over the Woodlands to Seletar section of that proposal, leaving a gap between Seletar and Punggol. A short one, which I may guess is being bridged by an extension of said CRL Punggol branch. Might that explain why we won’t see it as part of CRL1 due 2029?

The lack of any connections to downtown is also possibly an issue. LTA’s maps show something in the general direction of Marina South and the Greater Southern Waterfront, so perhaps we might see transfers with the TEL and NSL, which you can use to move around within the Marina/Raffles CBD.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The issue I have with infill stations on the west, is that it’s pretty hard to justify the status quo. To play devil’s advocate, I’m not sure how much the DTL extension will help people in Tengah, Bukit Batok and Jurong. By 2040 Tengah should be pretty packed, and Jurong may see the first signs of redevelopment and densification, resulting in an increase of passengers from that area descending upon Jurong East station — already one of the busiest in the network. The JRL may make it even busier.

Choa Chu Kang and Yew Tee residents already have 979 and 983 to use to get to Bukit Panjang, and if the DTL extension makes the line more accessible with or without buses, then it’s a fair deal. Also, would increasing the service reach of the DTL mean that we have to expand its capacity as well? Are we looking at 100 second headways (36 trains per hour)? Maybe even expanding the trains to four cars?

Another problem here lies east of Jurong East. Pass Clementi towards the CBD and you see 30 floor high HDB developments come up. Pass Commonwealth, that goes up to 40, and around Redhill and Queenstown you’re basically in a Big Apple-esque skyscraper canyon of high-rise developments. These people need train service too, and what happens when the EWL is already packed with folks from Jurong East and points west?

Sure, you could bike to work, but this may not work in cases where the “area” I live in is mismatched from the industry I work in, which means I have to travel to a different region every day to work. I may be grossly overstating the impact of this, and I’m fairly sure people would gladly move to be nearer to their workplaces if they were able to, but perhaps, affordability of housing in the desired region may become an issue, thus forcing people to still have to travel. Or even things like familial ties and wanting to stay near your other family members.

Bottom line is, I’m losing confidence in the ability of the EWL to solely handle such high passenger demand, even despite all the renewal works that go on. Could a return to the bad old days of waiting for three or four trains be in order? How much can you squeeze out of the line before it really starts to become incapable of doing what is expected of it? I think, with further development of JLD, JID and Tengah, LTA will need to find an answer to that. If not in this masterplan, maybe the next one.

Speaking of which, the quiet over the JRL extension to Haw Par Villa is kind of disturbing. I get that the whole JLD plan may mean they want to try and make transit as integrated as possible with the clean slate they have, so let’s stay tuned and see if we hear anything. Who knows, the JRL extension could even be done together with the CRL west leg, and either way I’m still questioning the usefulness of JRL + CCL as another trunk route to town.

Need for Speed 2.0 REDUX

Transit priority corridors are all well and good, but perhaps they can be even better. Right now, we see buses limited to 60kph like other heavy vehicles. This limits their use as a express service to relieve the MRT lines (such as buses 168, 190, 700, and 960) since they can’t go too fast. Perhaps a thing they might want to consider is to allow buses to go faster when within the transit priority corridors — especially when they charge premium fares for premium express buses!

Speaking about highway buses, perhaps the highway bus network could be expanded in order to get more people to consider them as an alternative to the MRT. It may help with the MRT situation, it may not (especially with peak hour traffic jams), but it’s worth a try.

Select Bus Service fare payment (source: Wikimedia commons)

One other thing worth considering is deployment of special vehicles that can load and unload passengers faster along the transit priority corridor, so that the buses can be kept moving as well, like for example putting the three-door double deckers for longer distance services, and articulated buses for shorter ones. Things like pre-boarding payment can even be considered, where you tap your card in while waiting for the bus, and tap out at the bus stop reader after you alight. NYC does this with their Select Bus Service, and MTR with the New Territories Light Rail.

Getting soft

One of the things I mentioned in my wishlist was for the actual transport hubs themselves to be easily accessible. Since what’s built is built, I guess the LTA have attempted to mitigate the issue, by providing more resting points for the elderly, nursing rooms for families, and so on. There’s also a “Care zone” initiative where you can wait for someone else to help you around.

But it makes me wonder, what can we do to let people get around the system without assistance? They’re definitely moving in that direction — more lifts at overhead bridges, flat-surfaced covered walkways with resting points (may I suggest tactile tiles for the visually impaired as well?), apps so the vidually impaired can navigate around easily…

There may be, of course, a need to look into having all these be more cohesive. Bus drivers already deal with three different devices (the fare collection machines, the Trapeze system, now MAVIS for the visually handicapped too), perhaps a more holistic design may be in order?

I remain split on the use of full-on priority cabins in trains. It won’t make sense on the shorter trains of newer lines — why block off 33% of the train’s capacity unless we have that many special needs folks? Perhaps “priority corners” within the existing cabins may be a better idea, and we already have the “red seats”.

Autonomous vehicles are also quite an interesting thing. It makes me wonder whether a fleet of self driving cars could be used to provide a paratransit service within JID or Tengah or something. All fully automated, roll-on roll-off, fully accessible self driving cars. Well, someone’s probably already building them. If not, then let our world renowned universities lead the charge.

To be Greta-friendly

The last part of LTA’s plan talks about emissions reductions, safety technology, and building communities and active mobility solutions. Perhaps LTA could also work with the power generation firms to use more sources of clean energy.

Cycle, scooter, take the train or the electric bus, don’t drive. They’re also talking about pedestrianizing roads (which I know some of those NUMTOTs will be quite happy about), and more cycling paths and end of trip facilities.

I think I see some synergies as well — perhaps they could be co-located with MRT stations in town hubs, so perhaps this may make cycling as a second last mile form of transfer (to eliminate a transfer, or bypass crowded MRT/bus segments) more appealing.

Yeah, I think that’s about it. I’m still disappointed that more can be done in terms of efficiency but they aren’t, but it’s a good start, and remember, plans can change at any time. I guess with the cashless payment debacle the LTA have really learnt their lesson about leaving people behind, so this change of tack is still welcome.

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