Years after the Government had pledged to improve the state of public transport — given the growing discontent with breakdowns and overcrowding — the biggest question on everyone’s minds is this: Have the aggressive measures worked and are the billions of dollars pumped in to lift the transport industry out of the doldrums reaping results?
Official figures indicate some measure of improvement, but not all is rosy.
Though the number of major train service delays — episodes lasting more than 30 minutes — for the entire MRT network has hit a new high this year, analysts said these were probably due to structural wear and tear of the ageing infrastructure, which takes time to rectify. They pointed to the occurrence of shorter delays — those lasting five minutes or so — and train withdrawals as evidence that the overhaul to the MRT and bus systems has seen incremental improvement.
Still, more intermediary options can be added to augment the system, the experts felt.
For instance, the number of City Direct Services — express bus routes run by private operators — could be ramped up, said National University of Singapore professor Lee Der-Horng.
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) transport economist Walter Theseira added that as long as headline-grabbing major delays are still happening, it is difficult for commuters to feel the benefits from the improvement in the number of short delays.
He also felt that what could make a difference to the commuter experience are a reduction in overcrowding and better reliability. Demand management policies, such as free travel during early hours and flexible work hours by companies, can make a perceptible difference in peak-hour crowding, he said, providing a respite until infrastructure improvements are completed.
Indeed, the Government has been aggressively ramping up the capacity of existing train lines.
The first of the 18 new North East Line and 24 new Circle Line trains are undergoing testing and will be progressively put into service from the middle of next year.
Stage 2 of the Downtown Line, which comprises 12 stations running through the Bukit Timah corridor, is also set to open in a little more than a year, in the first quarter of 2016.
The target of doubling the rail network from about 180km to about 360km in 2030 also appears to be on track.
The Thomson-East Coast Line — a joint line between the Thomson Line and the Eastern Region Line with 31 new stations and seven interchanges — will be ready in stages from 2019. Two new rail lines, the Cross Island Line and the Jurong Region Line, are also being planned.
Meanwhile, existing lines will get a facelift. Commuters staying between the Yishun and Sembawang MRT stations on the North South Line (NSL) can look forward to Canberra station, slated to be completed in 2019, with work starting in the middle of next year.
On the maintenance front, re-sleepering work along the northern portions of the NSL, particularly the stretches between Bishan and Woodlands, has been progressing well. As of last month, about 76 per cent of sleepers on the line have been replaced and trains are now travelling at full speed from Yio Chu Kang to Khatib, said the Land Transport Authority (LTA).
Other stretches will soon see a gradual lifting of speed restrictions next year. Work on the NSL is slated to finish by the middle of next year and the East West Line (EWL) by the end of 2016.
An upgrade to the North South-East West Line signalling system is also set for completion in 2016 for the NSL, with the new signalling system installed at more than 73 per cent of the stations and tracks. New signalling equipment has also been installed and is being tested on 14 trains in the existing fleet. The EWL will begin its upgrade early next year and is expected to be completed by 2018.
As for buses, the LTA’s billion-dollar Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP), which aims to add 1,000 more buses by 2017, is showing preliminary results.
Associate Professor Gopinath Menon, who teaches transportation engineering at NTU, acknowledged that there had been visible improvement in the bus industry under the BSEP. The recent reliability framework also helped in better assessing expected delays to passengers at bus stops, he added.
With more than half of the buses under the BSEP having been added so far, the LTA said waiting times for commuters had been shortened by three to seven minutes on more popular services. The number of bus services that were persistently crowded during peak hours has also been reduced by 60 per cent. Thirty-six new bus services have been rolled out since the programme began in 2012, along with nine City Direct Services and 10 Peak Period Short Services.
The authorities have also been rolling out “soft approaches” to improve the commuting journey, such as offering free travel to commuters who hop on before peak hours to eye-catching graciousness campaigns.
An LTA spokesman said the shift of commuters from morning peak periods to pre-peak periods has been consistent since the introduction of free pre-peak travel in June last year, at around 7 per cent.
This has resulted in a more even distribution of morning peak hour crowds, she noted, adding that capacity during the pre-peak period remained adequate.
The Corporate-Tier Travel Smart Rewards programme has also seen results. Introduced in July after a two-year pilot, the scheme offers monetary incentives to companies that implement flexible travel arrangements. From only 12 organisations in the pilot in 2012, the scheme has seen 39 companies and about 6,700 employees signing up to date, said the LTA. New sign-ups include Standard Chartered Bank, DBS, Barclays and Arup.
“As travel patterns typically take some time to stabilise, we expect to see preliminary results from the … participants some time mid-next year, with more definitive results around the end of 2015,” added the LTA spokesman.
Despite the various efforts, it could be worthwhile to consider more alternative transport modes besides electric-vehicle sharing, for example, said Professor Lee. The authorities can explore “making use of low air space to allow cable cars or even elevated Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) to come into the picture”, he suggested. PRT, also known as a podcar, is a system of small automated vehicles operating on a network of specially-built tracks.
With Certificate of Entitlement prices remaining high, there are more people scrapping their vehicles than new vehicles being registered, he said, signalling that more people could be switching to public transport.
Assoc Prof Menon pointed out that the current usage ratio during peak hours for public to private transport is 63:37, still some distance away from the Government’s target of 70:30 by 2020.