The rail network is set to be expanded further, after the completion of the Downtown, Cross-island, Thomson-East Coast and Jurong Regional Lines, and Singaporeans can expect announcements on new networks over the next few years.
“There is still potential to build a lot more … I am very sure that well before 2030, we will have announced more new lines,” outgoing Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew told TODAY in an interview on Thursday (Aug 13). “We are not done, not by a long way.”
Noting that it takes about a dozen years for a new line to be planned and operationalised, Mr Lui said Singaporeans can expect developments to be announced relatively soon. “If you want to see new rail lines operating in the early part of the 2030s, then in the next five years, you would have to start talking about those already,” he added.
Pressed on the details, Mr Lui said he would leave it to his successor to reveal the plans. Mr Lui has been the talk of the town since Tuesday, when it was announced that he would not contest in the coming General Election. He had broached the matter of stepping down with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier this year, and Mr Lee said he had reluctantly accepted the decision after trying unsuccessfully to get him to change his mind.
In an hour-long interview on Thursday, Mr Lui did not go into details or reaction to his decision - apart from paying tribute to his Ministry of Transport staff and saying that he had to disabuse them of the notion that they had somehow let him down.
Instead, he focused on the state of public transportation and improvements made since the 2011 GE, during which transport, along with housing and foreign manpower, emerged as hot topics.
While the rail network still suffers prolonged disruptions too frequently for the liking of both commuters and the authorities, Mr Lui reiterated that its reliability has improved in terms of withdrawals and delays. Despite this, he said, the future of rail is an exciting one.
To those who would arch an eyebrow at such a statement, Mr Lui had this to say: “I would say so because if you are talking about road network, given the land constraints, unless we go massively underground, it’s hard to see (more scope for developing the road network) being possible. Already, we are talking about the North-South Expressway being our last expressway, whereas the potential for rail, we are not even maximising it, not by any stretch.”
Over the last 15 years, the Republic has been growing its rail network by about 6 km per year, on average. Over the next 15 years, the growth will double to 12 km per year. The amounts being spent on it will rise in tandem: About S$14 billion was invested in the rail network over the last five years. This will go up to S$26 billion over the next five years.
Between 2011 and December this year, 40 new stations would have been added to the network. With the opening of the Downtown Line Stage 2 in December, six in every 10 households will be within a 10-minute walk of a nearby train station.
“If you look at what’s happening in Singapore versus cities and countries other than China, you’ll find that really, this is one of those cities that probably has the highest pace of development of the rail network,” he said.
In fact, it is the expansion of the networks which has partly contributed to commuters’ angst, he noted. “You put more trains in, the network expands, you are bound to have more withdrawals and delays in absolute terms,” he said.
It is a subject the outgoing Transport Minister is all too familiar with. Just months into his new job, he had to deal with two major disruptions that occurred over three days in December 2011. The breakdowns, which prompted the setting up of a Committee of Inquiry (COI), were then the worst in SMRT’s history. But just last month, they were shaded by a simultaneous breakdown of both the North-South and East-West Lines for about three hours. In the aftermath of that disruption, the Land Transport Authority began a comprehensive audit of SMRT’s maintenance regime for both lines to identify areas of improvement.
Those high-profile events apart, MRT reliability has “improved markedly” since the COI, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) noted. Train withdrawals have been cut by around two-thirds, while delays lasting longer than five minutes have also been reduced by more than 30 per cent since 2011 and are even better than 2007 levels, MOT said.
Congestion levels and overall public satisfaction have also improved, added Mr Lui.
The Government has committed much resources in getting to this state of affairs. It has spent more than S$100 million on ongoing renewal work, such as re-sleepering, re-signalling and the replacement of the third rail which powers the trains.
Mr Lui, who takes public transport every six months, stressed that the maintenance regime is the operators’ responsibility. And the operators have since taken a “more pro-active stance”, he said. “But we know that other countries and cities have run rail networks that are older than what we have, so we need to learn from them, we need to make greater use of technology, we need to make greater use of predictive tools, and we need to step up the overall effort to enhance maintenance.”
Leaving aside those issues, Mr Lui pointed out that the Government is making huge investments to improve the system. “Very few countries are able to do this and commit to this,” said Mr Lui, adding that for Singapore, the investments are on top of other big-ticket items for the Government, such as the Pioneer Generation Package, the expansion of Changi Airport and the building of a new port in Tuas.
“Given that we turn 50 this year, it’s worthwhile for people to take a step back and reflect on it ... what has made this doable? Why are we in such a, I would say, fortunate position?” he said. “(It’s) worthwhile to think and reflect on that, and how going forward, we can make sure that we continue to have this special formula for Singapore to deliver even more for us in the years to come.”