When the dust has settled

yuuka
From the Red Line
Published in
9 min readMay 25, 2024

Was the political cost of the 167 saga worth it?

The LTA says publicly that the service changes were made to optimize resources and dial back overprovision of transport service to areas now served by rail. But with the data in hand, let’s fact-check them. Is such a claim really true?

Or perhaps increasing TEL ridership is really just a happy accident, they didn’t plan for this, and the 3 minute service come 24th June (the first weekday after TEL4 opens) can’t come soon enough?

The baseline here is July and August 2023, as it is one of the earliest times where I have reliable data; July and August have also been historically some of the months with the highest rail ridership, according to SBS Transit and the LTA.

Are things looking up?

Almost every non-interchange station on the TEL has seen increased passenger numbers in 2024 compared to 2023. While the trends seen even in the second half of 2023 may point to the conclusion that everyone who wants to switch has already done so, what’s seen in 2024 so far gives us pause to think.

The sole exception is Woodlands North, but that is capped by the student population of Republic Polytechnic — with RP on holiday like in January and March, the station sees drops in traffic. For what it’s worth, reduced service hours of Service 902 may point to more RP students using the train, apart from workers in Senoko who can either take the train or go the scenic route on 856.

Significant growth at Woodlands South may be explained also by the opening of the Woodlands Health Campus; and while Springleaf, Bright Hill, and Upper Thomson are the main beneficiaries of the service changes, increases can be observed at Lentor, and Mayflower too.

Improvements can also be seen in TEL3 — Orchard Boulevard is steadily getting busier; and while Napier has also largely remained flat, that may be due to its location, as the station is surrounded by embassies, the Foreign Ministry, Gleneagles Hospital, and another exit to the Botanic Gardens. The same can probably be said for Gardens by the Bay where there’s only the eponymous Gardens, and the Marina Barrage.

The bump in tourism from Taylor Swift’s concerts (which we’ll discuss later) may also benefit Havelock, which is surrounded by hotels, and Maxwell, near old Chinatown and related tourist attractions.

However, it is not all rosy, as growth at Great World and Shenton Way remain largely flat after the January 2024 bump. This may not change as long as urban developments do not keep up; the same reasons why Mount Pleasant and Marina South remain closed. Land sales may be happening around the station, but that is still a while off. Here, perhaps those along TEL1–3 who wanted to switch may have already done so; growing usage of the station will need to wait for more urban developments in the area, and in the case of Shenton Way, perhaps TEL4 too.

But why?

Correlation does not imply causation. After all, the change occurred between the end of last year and the start of this year.

Firstly, it’s a possibility that as some companies reduce flexi-work policies, more have to travel to the office; and as the economy tightens, more may choose to use public transport instead of private hire cars. As a quick sanity check, we can look at the total entries across the entire rail network. There are some increases here, but they may not be as statistically significant compared to what we’ve seen at TEL stations, which may point to the TEL driving rail ridership growth. There are also more bus boardings, but that may be due either to transfers or because other growing areas use buses more heavily, with Tengah Town —where bus dependency is very real — progressively being completed and with residents moving in.

Average daily entries to the rail network
Average daily boardings on buses

Office space rental in the CBD have also been increasing, and with more enquiries being made, it means office space demand is also going up. Obviously as more people rent office space, it means more people are going to work in the CBD. Again, Shenton Way station is poised to benefit the most — last I went to Marina One, half the space in the office towers were empty.

Secondly, it could just simply be that all publicity is good publicity. Woodlands and Ang Mo Kio residents who may not have thought much of TEL1–3 as it currently stood, may have decided to try the line for their weekly commute after the media coverage, after which the habits stuck.

source LTA

It is only after significant prodding that the LTA has coughed up graphs like these for the TEL, even though they already do for the JRL and CRL. This may have pushed the needle somewhat.

Thirdly, the Coldplay and Taylor Swift concerts have also contributed significantly to inbound tourism demand — and there are plenty of hotels along the TEL stretch, especially in Havelock and Orchard. A rising tide lifts all boats, and considering how the LTA doesn’t release per-day data, we can’t exactly isolate the impact of these major concerts. But that still won’t explain how February 2024 —which should be a quieter month considering the Lunar New Year — is still busier than 2023, or how several TEL stations have managed to set ridership records in April 2024.

Just run the service?

Could the 5 minute frequency be a deterrent? After all, considering the LTA’s prior public remarks, I don’t personally like to use loading factors alone as a determination of how well a route is used. It appears that if they can get away with running the minimum feasible service to carry people without incurring too many complaints, they will, so it’s easier to assume trains will be full anyway, and look at the service level we run.

In this light, it may mean something that in the middle of March, SBS Transit added two more trains to the DTL in morning peak hours according to trainspotters. That they see the need to do so means that patronage has increased enough to force SBST’s hand. SGTrains Spotters, after all, reports that 25 trains are not in service, so it’s clear that whatever is happening, they have been forced to do more with less.

Why not TEL? Why wait for 23rd June, if the same or an even bigger relative increase in service demand has been seen on TEL? After all, the rail contracting model on TEL means that the LTA controls service levels, paying operators for the service they run regardless of how full the trains actually are. Should there really be the need, they could have run an extra train — at a 5 minute service, one more train means easily 7–8% more passenger capacity, which is nothing to scoff at. But they chose not to.

It’s not like the LTA does not have the ability to adapt. At some point in time shortly after it opened back in early 2020, TEL1 frequencies were increased from 10/15 minutes to 7/12 minutes during peak and off peak periods respectively. And between TEL2 and TEL3, there was a clear difference — where once people might have been able to get a seat at Caldecott northbound during TEL2, that was no longer possible after TEL3.

It points to me that perhaps they already tried to run more service as a marketing expense; but no one used it before TEL3. And thus, when TEL3 opened, it’s likely there was no need to run a more frequent service, despite more than doubling the amount of stations on the line. And then we still have to ask if there was still excess capacity to absorb passengers switching to rail services— excess capacity which may now be used up already.

Will it happen again?

Come Monday June 24th, reducing waiting times from 5 minutes to 3 minutes in peak hours is a 67% increase in carrying capacity. TEL4 may drive some additional through trips, but I don’t believe that will magically increase usage on the northern section by 67% to justify the corresponding service increase. Considering how much bus service is currently provided in Marine Parade and Katong, a 3 minute service could be necessary on the southern portion of the line; but not in the northern portion.

As the relatively constant 2023 data shows, most who wanted to switch to TEL1–3 may have already switched. It also doesn’t help that delays to TEL5 means trips eastward to Changi Business Park, Tampines, and the airport still have to be done by bus in the meantime, as no TEL5 also means no north-south connections.

That said, Marine Parade Road and related roads are sufficiently congested enough with school jams from the various schools and other developments, that standard transportation theory instead of Fast Singapore Roads (TM) may apply. We may see a decent modal conversion from road traffic like cars and buses down into the MRT network here. Locally, even rich billionaires like Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin are seen riding the MRT, likely seeing no point in owning a car due to the Bukit Timah school jam.

As the first MRT sector to include dedicated basement cycling parks, TEL4 may also have a drastically larger catchment area than previous lines, as it becomes much more acceptable to cycle to the MRT station — a prospect easier to encourage in landed areas like Siglap, making sure that we don’t repeat the failures seen at places like Tan Kah Kee and Upper Changi.

But I won’t be surprised if come 2026, post-TEL5 peak service levels remain at three minutes, or get even worse as the marketing budget runs out. Perhaps the opening of the RTS Link in end 2026 might justify more train service. Or who knows, three minutes may really be enough. After all, at a comfortable load, the 10,000 passengers per hour per direction that the RTS Link will carry, is only a TEL train every six minutes.

Don’t forget the greater context, with Fast Singapore Roads and policies aimed at keeping congestion low for cars, you can get anywhere quickly for the cost of a basic bus fare, when car infrastructure is bus infrastructure. It’s thus understandable why people may be reticent to pay express fares, and may also explain why people underestimate the improvements that new rail provides.

Ultimately, whose KPI is it to increase rail ridership? And whose job is it to moderate the effects of intermodal competition? The political cost of discontinuing car replacement bus routes in Singapore may mean it’s easier to keep the network as is, much as Taipei has done, or parliamentary train service in the UK. It’s then a logical reaction to decreasing ridership to decrease service, and since Singaporeans have opted against network reform and simplification, we get the public transport we deserve.

Modal competition is there, and we should move more aggressively in recognizing and mitigating its impacts. But without understanding our car-centric thinking and the public transport network that develops as a result, history may well repeat itself. With the much more aggressive messaging around TEL4, perhaps the LTA has realized this.

Only time will tell whether the lesson is actually learnt, though.

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yuuka
From the Red Line

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.