Sunday 13 November 2011

The great MRT crush, Capacity to rise by up to 50%

More permanent relief will arrive only several years down the road, say transport experts
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 13 Nov 2011

Stockbroker Cole Cheong is fed up with the MRT.

In particular, the crowds are getting to him.

'Non-peak hours are bearable, but the morning peak is getting more crowded,' he said.

'More people are getting frustrated and they start quarrelling in the trains, and our personal space is compromised.'

Mr Cheong, 44, has been taking the East-West Line to Raffles Place from his home in Lakeside for 20 years. In that time, he has seen the rail system become more crowded, particularly in the last five years.

The trains are most crowded along certain stretches and in certain directions during peak hours - for instance, city-bound trains tend to be packed in the morning.

Complaints about the great train squeeze are now commonplace, and passenger figures back that up.

Ridership on the North-South, East-West and Circle lines averaged 1.79 million a day in September, up from 1.66 million in the same period last year.

Average daily ridership on the North-East Line, which is operated by SBS Transit, was 434,000 in September, 9.6 per cent more than in the same period last year.

The authorities and transport operators have heeded commuters' frustration by introducing a slew of measures, but the bald fact remains: permanent relief will only arrive several years down the road.

In particular, alleviating the great MRT crush depends on three projects:
- upgrading the ageing signalling system on the North-South and East-West lines;
- the arrival of more new trains;
- the completion of new lines.
All these need time. The signalling upgrade will not be completed till 2018, while new trains take several years to deliver. New rail lines also take years to build.

For now, however, two initiatives are under way.

One, SMRT is looking into extending the peak period, when its MRT trains arrive every two minutes.

The move is intended to bring relief to commuters on morning rush-hour services that have become increasingly packed.

At the moment, trains run at two-minute intervals for about an hour during what is known as the 'peak-of-the-peak' period.

'We are looking into extending it further, subject to the number of trains we have,' SMRT's strategic rail planning director Lui Weng Chee told The Sunday Times.

Two, SMRT will open the extra track and platform at Jurong East station during evening peak hours to ease congestion. This will start next month.

The extra platform was opened in May to eliminate a gridlock at Jurong East, where previously an approaching train had to wait for a preceding train to leave before it could pull in. It currently only runs during the morning peak period.

Rising population

SMRT's Mr Lui said the increase in crowds is due to population growth and factors such as companies hiring more staff during an economic boom. Singapore's population grew by more than one million to 5.1 million between 2000 and last year.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der-Horng said initiatives such as the park-and-ride scheme have also fed more people into the train network.

To meet this burgeoning demand, the Government is pumping $60 billion into expanding the network. A new line or extension will open every year over the next six years.

But observers caution that those measures alone may not be enough to reduce the crowds on trains. New rail lines will bring even more people into the city centre, said Professor Lee.

He suggested that Singapore pursue a decentralised development style to redistribute transport demand. Developing more regional centres on top of existing ones at Tampines, Woodlands and Jurong would move more commuters out of the city centre, he said.

Transport consultant Tham Chen Munn said: 'If the population continues to increase, the trains are still going to be packed.'

He believes the Government should take the lead in promoting flexible working times, to stretch out the peak-hour crowd.

Mr Cedric Foo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, proposed using pricing to spread the loads. 'The pre-peak period discounts could be increased if necessary to shape commuter load more evenly,' he said.

Former Centre for Infrastructure Systems director Henry Fan said congestion during the peak period cannot be avoided completely.

'If we design a system to have the capacity to take care of congestion in the peak period, then it would mean the system will be under-utilised during the other hours of the day,' he said.

'One can try to minimise congestion, but one also should not expect a congestion-free system during the peak.'

Still, SMRT's Mr Lui believes every bit helps. He said the operator periodically makes adjustments to fine-tune its schedules, and will do so again next month. These adjustments include lengthening the period in which trains run at two- minute headways.

He said: 'One more train on the line means a bit more elbow room for commuters.'

Capacity to rise by up to 50%

SMRT is expected to receive another nine trains by next month, which will inject further capacity into the North-South and East-West lines.

Those nine would bring the total number of new trains put into both lines this year to 22. An additional 13 trains will be delivered around 2014 to 2015.

A Land Transport Authority (LTA) spokesman said together, these additional 35 trains will enhance the capacity of both lines by about 25 per cent.

Each train adds significant capacity to the network.

A six-carriage train can carry about 1,400 commuters during peak hours, said SMRT rail strategic planning director Lui Weng Chee.

However, it takes several years for a new train to arrive from the point when LTA calls an open tender to buy new trains.

Manufacturing and assembling the trains alone can take about 20 months, including off-site testing.

The LTA is also buying new trains for the Circle Line and North-East Line (NEL).

The Circle Line will receive 16 new trains by 2015, which will increase its capacity by about 40 per cent.

Operator SBS Transit, which was recently awarded the operating licence for the upcoming Downtown Line, currently has 25 trains on the NEL.

It will receive another 12 trains in about four to five years, and these are expected to increase the line's capacity by up to 50 per cent.

The Bukit Panjang LRT system will also receive 13 additional train-cars in 2014, boosting its capacity by about 50 per cent.

Work to ease congestion on busiest train lines

Congestion on the MRT's two most crowded lines could be eased when a new signalling system is introduced that allows trains to run closer together.

Called Communications-Based Train Control, it will be brought in on the North-South and East-West lines over the next seven years.

Tender proposals from different companies are being evaluated by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and rail operator SMRT.

The system is already in place on the newer Circle and North-East lines. But the North-South and East-West lines, which carry the most passengers, still use the 'fixed block' signalling system introduced in 1987.

This system divides the track into 150m blocks and can detect where a train is only when it moves into a new section.

Mr Lui Weng Chee, the rail strategic planning director at SMRT, said trains are currently kept at least one block apart for safety reasons.

This leads to gaps of at least 120 seconds between a train leaving and the next one entering the station.

In contrast, the newer system - used in cities such as Paris and Taipei - constantly relays each train's precise location and speed to a central computer.

This extra information means that the distance between the trains can be varied, depending on how fast they are travelling.

With trains able to move closer together, gaps between them can be reduced to 100 seconds during peak periods.

The signalling upgrade will involve the progressive replacement of existing equipment on the trains, along the tracks, at stations and depots, and in the operations control centre.

An LTA spokesman said work is expected to start next year, and the new system is slated for completion by 2016 for the North-South Line, and 2018 for the East-West Line.

The bulk of installation work can take place only during 'non-revenue' hours - a maximum of three to four hours every night, which is why the project will take so long to be completed.

The upgraded system will potentially increase the capacity of both lines by up to 20 per cent, said the spokesman.

Mr Cedric Foo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said: 'LTA should definitely study how the signalling system upgrade can be completed earlier.'

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