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Covid-19: Commuters tell of difficulty keeping a safe distance after train frequency reduced

SINGAPORE — Some essential workers over the weekend found themselves with little choice but to ignore safe distancing markers on the train as the authorities’ move to reduce the frequency of services resulted in some relatively crowded trains.

Commuters on an MRT train on the Circle Line at 7.15pm on April 19, 2020.

Commuters on an MRT train on the Circle Line at 7.15pm on April 19, 2020.

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SINGAPORE — Some essential workers over the weekend found themselves with little choice but to ignore safe distancing markers on the train as the authorities’ move to reduce the frequency of services resulted in some relatively crowded trains.

Even one safe distancing ambassador, whose job is to ensure that people keep a 1m distance from one another, told TODAY that it was “quite difficult” to strictly adhere to safe distancing rules when she travelled to work at about 9am.

The ambassador, who declined to be named in this capacity, noted that those who just board the train often get “stuck” in a tight spot as they realise that there aren’t any more “safe spots” only after boarding. It resulted in other commuters having to space themselves out by deviating from the green-coloured safe distancing markers on the train floor.

Other commuters also told TODAY that they had entered the crowded carriages despite knowing that there would not be any more “safe space” to stand in, as they anticipated that the next train would still be crowded.

They experienced these conditions in the wake of changes to train operating hours and frequency, which kicked in on Friday (April 17) in response to a drop in daily rail ridership of more than 75 per cent.

Commuters waiting for the northbound train at Bishan MRT Station at 7.20pm on April 19, 2020. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/ TODAY

Train frequencies on the North-South, East-West, North-East, Circle and Downtown Lines were reduced to no more than five minutes during peak periods and around 10 minutes during off-peak periods.

Before the changes, train frequencies were at no more than three minutes during peak periods and around five minutes during off-peak periods.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan on Saturday acknowledged in a Facebook post that the changes in frequency have caused “some crowding” on some stretches of the North-South, East-West and Circle Lines during the morning peak hours.

He then pointed out that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) is studying data and will “refine the headways for implementation on Monday”. “I have told LTA to err on the side of generosity, that is, to over-provide rather than under-provide,” he added.

TODAY has sent queries to the LTA on Sunday seeking further details on what the refinement might entail.

When announcing the move on Tuesday, the LTA had said that the adjustments, which cover bus operations as well, were designed to help mitigate the significant financial impact caused by the reduced riderships and help keep public transport operations financially sustainable.

It also said that LTA and the operators “will ensure that there is sufficient space for commuters to maintain safe distancing from one another”. But commuters still felt the squeeze, going by what they told TODAY.


Ms Chan, a 32-year-old hospital staff member who wanted to be known only by her last name, had been taking the relatively empty trains to work until this Friday.

Previously, the essential worker who was deployed to perform triaging duties at a local hospital could still find empty seats when she travelled from Sembawang MRT Station to Novena MRT Station on the North-South Line.

But during the morning peak hour on Friday, she found herself caught in a tight spot as people continued to crowd the train carriage at the more centrally-located stations such as Bishan and Ang Mo Kio, even though the remaining standing spots available could not accommodate them.

“People are already standing on the green stickers and (alternate) seats are also taken, but people still come in,” she told TODAY. “Some will move to another cabin, but there are one or two people who didn’t know where to stand so they just stood anywhere.”

A 44-year-old process technician, who wanted to be known only as Don, took the first train from Tampines MRT Station on the East-West Line on Sunday, and found that the train got too packed along the way to receive new passengers.

Still, they got on, which meant that social distancing rules on the train could not be followed, he said. “There were too many passengers,” he added. “I think it started from Kallang till Queenstown at least.”

The problem appears to have emerged only from Friday, as those who travelled after the circuit breaker measures kicked in on April 7 but before Friday said that they have not experienced any issues with not having enough safe distancing markers to stand on.

Mr Shane Chio, an essential worker who works in the customer service environment, said the number of people on MRT trains had “really died down a lot” prior to Friday.

The 33-year-old has had to travel from his home at Boon Lay to his workplace in Toa Payoh on alternate days, as he rotates between working from home and the office.

But although there are “quite a number of stations” in between Boon Lay on the East-West Line and Toa Payoh on the North-South Line, “there were no lack of green stickers” throughout his journey, he said.

“I didn’t find there’s any need for people who found a cabin to be full (out of markers to stand on) and had to shift to the next”, he added. He usually takes the train during peak hour periods, between 7am and 8am, and 6pm to 7pm, but has not travelled via the train since Friday.

Ms Valerie Wong, a 29-year-old public servant who travels between Redhill MRT Station and Tiong Bahru MRT Station on the East-West Line for work, observed that the congestion on the train had increased by about 30 per cent since Friday.

“I thought it was because it was a Friday and more people went out, but later, I found out that it was because of the decreased frequency,” she said.

As there are more people standing, she said commuters had tried to space out rather than stand on the green markers. Some commuters walked to the carriage doors that are further away from the escalators to try to stand further apart from one another as well, she added.

Asked if she was worried about having to stand closer to others when taking public transport, she said: “I am more worried if they cough.”


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Covid-19 coronavirus safe distancing mrt

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