MRT train crush and the solution right under our noses

Why did it take so long for SMRT to finally “look into” extending the peak period? Perhaps it’s because the “crush loads” don’t exactly hurt profits, but buying new trains and hiring more train drivers will. So it took a bit of political pressure to get things moving.

MRT crush load

At the risk of sounding like a broken old record, I’m going to point out once again that the PAP government failed in the last 10 years to adequately plan our infrastructure for the huge influx of immigrants and foreign workers that we saw between 2005 and 2010. One bugbear for many Singaporeans (mostly from the middle to lower classes, who take public transport), is the overcrowding on buses and MRT trains.

The government’s grand solution to all this was to build more MRT lines. Hence the huge investment of over $10 billion to build the Circle Line (up from a budgeted $6.7 billion) and another $1.4 billion to build the Downtown Line. While I don’t begrudge this necessary investment in a public good, the benefits from this investment are playing a game of catch up with our ever-growing population.

What we needed were interim solutions to solve the immediate problem of “crush loads” on our bus and train networks. This could not be achieved by building more lines, as they take years to complete. Hence, Singaporeans have been forced to squeeze on unbearably crowded trains with fellow commuters for the past few years while construction of the new lines was going on. We were repeatedly told by the government, “Don’t worry, relief is coming soon. We’re building more lines.”

One interim solution that could have been carried out much faster (and at much lower cost) than building new lines was to increase train frequency, within the limits of the ageing signalling system.

I had raised this proposal during my maiden speech in Parliament last month. I had said:

…if the Government is serious about encouraging our people to drive less and use more public transport, it must give priority to tackling the overcrowding problem on trains. The solution lies not only in building more lines, but making better use of the existing lines by increasing train frequency and maintaining that high frequency for longer periods, especially during peak hours.

Why can’t the MRT operators maintain a train interval of two minutes from 7am to 9am, and from 5pm to 8pm? Is it because of technical constraints, or because it will increase their costs and reduce their profits?

This was not the first time I had suggested this. Back in February 2008, I had written a long paper titled “Improving Singapore’s Public Transport System – A Commuter’s Perspective”, where I suggested lengthening the peak period timings.

I had also written privately to SMRT to make this suggestion, to no avail. I was told that trains cannot operate too close together for safety reasons. But if trains can already run at two-minute intervals for short periods during the morning and evening rush hours, why can’t they do so for a longer period to clear the commuters on the train platforms faster?

I’m glad to note that SMRT has finally announced that it is looking into extending the peak period:

…SMRT is looking into extending the peak period, when its MRT trains arrive every two minutes.

The move is intended to bring relief to commuters on morning rush-hour services that have become increasingly packed.

At the moment, trains run at two-minute intervals for about an hour during what is known as the ‘peak-of-the-peak’ period.

‘We are looking into extending it further, subject to the number of trains we have,’ SMRT’s strategic rail planning director Lui Weng Chee told The Sunday Times.

— Source: Sunday Times, 13 November 2011

(Note: From personal experience, I don’t think the current ‘peak-of-the-peak’ period of two-minute intervals lasts one hour. It’s more like half an hour in the mornings. Maybe they are referring to the sum of the morning and evening rush hour ‘peak-of-the-peak’ periods.)

Why did it take so long for SMRT to finally “look into” this solution? Perhaps it’s because the “crush loads” don’t exactly hurt profits, but buying new trains and hiring more train drivers will. So it took a bit of political pressure to get things moving.

Whatever the reason, I hope they extend this ‘peak-of-the-peak’ period soon, for the benefit of the 1.7 million commuters who depend on public transport every day.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

12 thoughts on “MRT train crush and the solution right under our noses”

  1. Emulating some CEO, “SMRT can extend the peak period and increase the frequency of trains – it is whether they choose to.”

  2. Just happened to stumble here….

    From personal experience, even the peak-of-the-peak hours don’t get trains every 2 mins, especially on the north-south line. It can be quite inconsistent, anywhere from 1-6 mins.

    I’m not sure whether this idea has been raised before. I would propose the ministries, stat boards and GLCs create more flexible working hours to spread out the load (need to study how many commuters work there). Schools could be free to set their own assembly times as well.

    Fundamentally, however, it is a population problem. I seriously doubt Singapore’s ability to carry another 1.5 million people, just to achieve the vague notion of a “critical mass”.

  3. I fully agree that SMRT should do everything possible to increase train frequencies. But can they do so without compromising safety? Margins for error are reduced when train frequency rises. Driver and controller fatigue also increases when train frequencies rise. If the choice is between a sardine in a sardine can and not getting home, I’d take the overcrowding for now.

  4. It is as plain as day why the SMRT is so intransigent regarding the introduction of more trains and services and yet seem unafraid of the rocket coming its way from the top.

    The reason is simply that CEO Saw herself is under instruction from the same top to maximise profit and returns to shareholders, aka as the GIC/Temasek.

    The heat is on from LKY and gang to replenish/make good the hundred of billions loses the GIC and Temasek has suffered.

    As plain as day.

  5. Well they do have 2 min stretches. only from Yishun to Marina Bay though and not on Circle Line. not too sure bout East-West as well. and it’s for about 2 hours now. they did try to extend till 10+ am. which is a good sign. i used to have difficulty getting on when they suddenly withdrew all trains at 10 am.

    but then again, i board @ bishan. so i’m blessed with lots of people alighting. others may not be that lucky. so SMRT better wake up your idea!

  6. I think if the non PAP guys were to run the show, the overcrowding would have been significantly worse.

  7. An even better solution and an instant one is to repatriate half of the foreigners working here.

    Note, we are not saying we don’t need foreign workers here. Just the number. Instead of 1 million foreigners, have half a million which is still a lot by any world standards.

    This will solve the following problems Singaporeans are now suffering from:
    1) Low wages
    2) Unemployed PMETs
    3) Over-crowded buses
    4) Over-crowded trains
    5) Over-crowded hospitals
    6) Over-crowded parks and public places.

    Ad nauseum

  8. /// anon Says:
    November 16th, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    I think if the non PAP guys were to run the show, the overcrowding would have been significantly worse. ///

    How so?
    As I say in my earlier post, non-PAP guys will not be so fixated with growing the economy at whatever cost so that they can justify their humongous pay by importing a million foreign workers. Cut down on the foreign workers and the overcrowding will disappear overnight.

  9. Personally I am surprised the government did not pressure SMRT and SBS sooner. If they are all for liberal immigration policies (and I believe they are), then surely they would have known that the trains and buses would have been the first to buckle.

    There’s an ad on SMRT’s trains from Aberdeen. It reads Keep Calm & Carry On. I sometimes wonder if SMRT means it for the thousands who use their trains everyday, despite the immense discomfort.

  10. Whatever the solution we can think of to solve the train problems over the short run, we will not be able to resolve it. Not even if the opposition comes in. It is simply a matter of a system being built for a projected demand not consistent with today’s population and the lack of viable alternatives. The single most important cause of this problem is the population explosion and the increased tourism (gamblers and students in particular). Like housing, the government did not see it coming, even though it was a planned increase. I am not against a population increase in the light of a chronic decline in births. But I am against the sudden, uncontrolled influx. Even Australia with such a huge land mass did not have as massive an intake as our small island. Was the government caught sleeping? Not so. They are good planners and most government ministers are smart and can think. So why the problem? Somebody is always telling them and us that they are the best we can get and that if all of them were to crash in one plane, Singapore is finished. When you keep believing you are the best and for that you get rewarded with multimillion dollar salaries, you don’t do too much critical thinking. Just coast along. Give educated replies and back it up with statistics, everyone will accept it and the mistakes will be forgotten – until the last election. So what are we to do? Live with the crowded mess and hope a chunk of foreigners decide to call it quits and reduce the demand or the government can accept that MRT can lose money. Sure to lose if you pour money into more services, faster speed, extended peak hours and lower fares. But it will alleviate the congestion.

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