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The rail network beyond 2030: An MRT line linking north and east?

SINGAPORE — The Government could consider a rail link between the north of Singapore and the east as it mulls over rail projects beyond 2030, said transport analysts.

SINGAPORE — The Government could consider a rail link between the north of Singapore and the east as it mulls over rail projects beyond 2030, said transport analysts.

Rail connections may also be needed when the site of Paya Lebar Air Base is redeveloped after 2030, they said.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Janil Puthucheary told Parliament earlier this month that the Ministry of Transport (MOT) was studying other rail projects beyond 2030.

More details will be unveiled in a few months when the Land Transport Master Plan 2040 is launched, Dr Puthucheary said.

By 2030, these rail projects would likely have been completed:

  • Thomson-East Coast Line, running from Woodlands North, through the Central Business District to Sungei Bedok (2024)
  • Circle Line extension connecting HarbourFront station to Marina Bay (2025)
  • Jurong Region Line serving Chua Chu Kang, Boon Lay, Jurong and the future Tengah town (2028)
  • 50km Cross Island Line, which will connect places such as the Jurong Lake District, Punggol Digital District and the Changi region (2030)

Beyond that, much will depend on future travel demand and land-use patterns, as well as where people are working and living, the analysts said.

In an interview with TODAY in 2015, then-outgoing Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said the rail network would be expanded further even after the Cross Island Line is completed. “There is still potential to build a lot more… I am very sure that well before 2030, we will have announced more new lines,” he said then. “We are not done, not by a long way.”

But what are the possibilities post-2030? Here are some:

RAIL LINK FROM NORTH TO EAST

There is no direct rail connection between some parts of the northern and eastern regions of Singapore, said transport economist Walter Theseira of the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

Right now, riders wishing to shuttle between far-flung areas of the network, such as from Sembawang to Punggol, face relatively poor connectivity. They have to travel “almost halfway to town” before moving to another line, he added.

Associate Professor Theseira said that in the north, there is plenty of land in or around Sembawang, Admiralty and Yishun that could be developed in future.

In the east, there are developments in Seletar and the north of Punggol. There are even plans afoot to develop Coney Island and even Pulau Ubin.

“If they materialise, they could put a real strain on the system if there is a lot of demand for travel between these areas,” he said.

Nevertheless, the authorities will have to see if a substantial number of people will enjoy time savings, to make any rail investment worthwhile. “You’ll need much more development first,” he said.

Agreeing, urban transport analyst Park Byung Joon said areas such as Changi in the east could be directly linked to the north including Woodlands, through to Tuas in the west.

Besides a new MRT line, extending an existing one such as the North South Line is another option, said Associate Professor Park, who is also with the SUSS.

Transport analyst Tham Chen Munn cited Simpang, an area west of Seletar, as one of the places not covered by the present rail network.

It may be served via an extension to the North East Line in future, said the director of PTV Group, a transport modelling company.

Dr Lee Bee Wah, a Member of Parliament for the Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency (GRC), said the transport network from Yishun could always be better.

Right now, residents who travel between Yishun and the east may take either trains or buses. Those working in the airport and Tampines, for example, have direct bus services, Dr Lee said.

While the future Thomson-East Coast and Cross Island lines — with an interchange in Ang Mo Kio, which is three stops from Yishun — will cut travel time, residents “still need to make transfers”, she added.

MP Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) said he supported the idea of a direct rail link because growth in the towns will follow.

“Even if no one pulls a long journey from the north to the east, there will be people who make intermediate journeys along that (stretch),” he said.

His residents in Admiralty estate would benefit in the long haul, he said.

DEVELOPMENTS IN PAYA LEBAR

The relocation of Paya Lebar Air Base from 2030 is set to free up an 800ha area (bigger than Ang Mo Kio town) for new homes, offices and factories.

While the Cross Island Line will pass through the air base, no station has been planned for that stretch, The Straits Times reported in January.

To cater for future developments, Assoc Prof Theseira suggested that the authorities could build a shell station or provide for such a facility, such as setting aside space and planning the road network around it.

Agreeing, transport specialist Terence Fan of the Singapore Management University said stations catering for future homes and offices need not be in operation when the line opens.

“Making preparatory work around the (line) in that area may help the future opening of these stations when the need arises,” he said.

While it may be more practical to add a station to the Cross Island Line, Assoc Prof Theseira said there is potential for another line if development is very intensive there.

Mr Ang Hin Kee, deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said decisions on future rail lines should not only take into account population density.

There is a need to consider land use, nature of work, and the travel and consumption patterns of commuters, he said.

The MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC said there may be a shift to staggered work hours or even telecommuting in new digital business districts, for instance. Workers could also be living and working in the same area.

He suggested that the Urban Redevelopment Authority be involved in efforts to draw up new rail lines, considering land use and journey patterns to work.

Assistant Professor Fan agreed: “It may be worthwhile for the Government to pause and see how people change their home or work locations before planning for new lines.”

CHANGI EAST

Changi Airport Terminal 5 will open in 2030 and eventually handle up to 70 million passengers a year, more than Terminals 1, 2 and 3 combined.

The mega passenger terminal is part of the 1,080ha Changi East development, which will also include aviation support facilities and an industrial zone.

The Government has said that the Cross Island and Thomson-East Coast lines could be linked to the terminal.

Assoc Prof Theseira said it is vital for the country’s MRT system to be connected to major transport nodes, such as the airport.

“Otherwise, travellers will always have to switch to private transport or buses, which have less capacity at such key points,” he added.

It is logical to extend the train network to Terminal 5, which would otherwise not be well linked by rail, he said.

TUAS SOUTH

In the west, Nominated MP Arasu Duraisamy recently called for a new MRT line to serve Tuas South and connect to Jurong Island.

Rejecting the suggestion, Dr Puthucheary said earlier this month that there is insufficient ridership in the near to medium term to support a new line.

Speaking in Parliament, Mr Arasu argued that businesses operating in Tuas South would benefit from a train station and new enterprises would also sprout with the Tuas megaport slated for completion by 2040.

Assoc Prof Theseira said industrial zones tend to see heavy demand when shifts start and end, but little human flow at other times.

But he noted that a line could be justified if there are comprehensive development plans for the area that include mixed uses beyond industrial purposes, and if “it is important to make it more attractive to Singaporean workers”.

“The economic case for rail doesn’t just depend on ridership. It also is based on whether the line serves to improve connectivity, and to support economic growth and development,” he said.

Assoc Prof Park felt it may not be wise to build a new line as ridership peaks only at certain times of the day. Most workplaces already provide shuttle buses for workers, he said.

POTENTIAL NEW CONNECTION TO MALAYSIA?

The Republic could also consider another rail connection into Malaysia.

Right now, plans are afoot for a rapid transit system linking Bukit Chagar in Johor Baru and Woodlands North in Singapore.

The Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail link starting from the Jurong East terminus here is also set to pass through Johor — via the Iskandar Puteri, Batu Pahat and Muar stops.

Assoc Prof Theseira said the economy of southern Johor is largely integrated with Singapore’s, given many Malaysians cross over to work here, for instance.

Greater integration with southern Johor’s transport network would facilitate growth for both countries, he said.

Singapore, he added, is unlikely to be competitive against many other Asian cities without leveraging on southern Johor effectively.

One possibility is to have more than one rapid transit link into the Malaysian state.

While the high-speed rail project is set to be linked to Iskandar Puteri, it is not meant to be a frequent commuter connection. “At some point, there would likely be a serious look at having a commuter version of the high-speed rail or a parallel link,” he said.

While ongoing bilateral disputes over issues such as maritime boundaries and airspace are overshadowing the need to collaborate, Assoc Prof Theseira said: “If not for the problem of politics, in all likelihood, we would in fact have a permanent integrated system running into Johor… where you could get on in the Central Business District and get off in Senai (in Johor).”

Mobility patterns, however, are changing, and the analysts said these shifts could affect the reliance on rail as a mode of transport.

Autonomous vehicles, for instance, are envisaged to make public transport more efficient, said PTV Group’s Mr Tham.

With rail lines coming at a high price tag, he noted that plans for cheaper alternatives are needed.

“When the future of mobility gets into shape, you can always switch to all these alternatives, rather than building a (rail) line immediately,” he added.

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