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Bukit Panjang LRT could run on shorter hours to cater to rectification works

SINGAPORE — The problematic Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (LRT) system could have shorter operating hours to accommodate rectification work, Second Transport Minister Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament on Monday (Oct 2).

Bukit Panjang LRT could run on shorter hours to cater to rectification works

A shutdown of the problematic Bukit Panjang LRT for major upgrades is one of the options the Government is mulling over for the system's upcoming overhaul. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

SINGAPORE — The problematic Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (LRT) system could have shorter operating hours to accommodate rectification work, Second Transport Minister Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament on Monday (Oct 2).

Noting that power-related faults have been behind most of the disruptions on the Bukit Panjang LRT, Mr Ng said the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and operator SMRT are carrying out detailed checks on its power rails, and hotspot replacement work, where necessary.

The LTA will also install a new power source at the Ten Mile Junction substation as a back-up to the current system at Chua Chu Kang. Both these efforts will wrap by year’s end, when a tender will be called to overhaul the Bukit Panjang LRT, which was launched in 1999. The contract will be awarded by the first half of next year. A timeline of the overhaul was not given.

To cater to the extra works before the overhaul, shortened operating hours are being explored to give the LTA and SMRT more time on the tracks. Mr Ng cautioned that these will cause “short-term disruptions”, but said bus services will be beefed up, where possible, to minimise inconvenience to commuters.

There is a limit to the number of buses that can ply the roads without worsening congestion, though, as Bukit Panjang is a relatively mature town, he noted.

“We hope to have commuters’ understanding,” Mr Ng added. 

Mr Ng was responding to questions about the rail line — the Republic’s third-oldest after the North-South and East-West MRT lines — by Members of Parliament Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) and Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

Mr Liang, who oversees part of Bukit Panjang town, had asked how the authorities are seeking to keep LRT services reliable, both in the short and long term.

In response, Mr Ng said SMRT is setting up a quick-response team to rectify train faults and shorten service recovery. “The proximity of the new Bukit Panjang Integrated Transport Hub will also allow

SMRT to deploy buses rapidly to ferry commuters during a service disruption,” said Mr Ng.

Last month, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan heaped criticism on the ageing Bukit Panjang LRT system, describing it as an “afterthought” that was built under political pressure, resulting in a design that makes for uncomfortable rides. 

“No LRT is designed that way, in such a masochistic manner, where you force yourself up and down, twist and turn,” he had said at a ceremony to mark the completion of power-rail replacements on the North-South and East-West lines. 

He added of the few occasions he took the Bukit Panjang LRT: “I won’t say I enjoyed the ride; it caused me dizziness ... but that’s life.”

Asked by Mr Singh about the political pressures faced by the Government at that time, Mr Ng said that the LTA had in the 1990s been exploring a pilot LRT network to bridge the last-mile gap from the MRT system, as well as ease traffic congestion in housing estates “where population growth had stretched the road capacity”.

Bukit Panjang town was identified for this pilot in 1994, even though it had been planned and built without an LRT system in mind, he added.

As a result, the LRT had to snake through “sharp turns over undulating terrain” to accommodate existing developments. 

“Over time, we discovered that this made the LRT prone to faults, especially power trips at the sharp bends where the trains’ collector shoes often dislodge from the power rail,” said Mr Ng.

The primary issue with the line was that its design was adapted from an airport system — which typically runs in a straight line — giving rise to power-related issues.  

The Government has examined the LRT’s design considerations, which will be addressed in the upcoming tender to improve system reliability, he said. 

Thus far, Mr Ng noted that the LTA and SMRT have invested much effort on this front, including comprehensive power-rail checks.

The Bukit Panjang LRT has been bedevilled by problems since its launch. Last year, for example, there were eight major delays lasting more than 30 minutes. In 2015, the line, which has 14 stops in a 10.5km-long loop, was dogged by 10 such trip-ups. 

In the first half of this year, two major delays were on record. The most recent trip-up on Sept 9 crippled services for more than six hours.

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