Behind the ‘political pressure’ that led to the ‘afterthought’ of Bukit Panjang LRT

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SINGAPORE: Issues such as accessibility problems and traffic congestion could be some of the factors alluded to by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who on Tue (Sep 12) described Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (LRT) as an “afterthought” built under “political pressure”.

The idea of the LRT for Bukit Panjang was first pitched in 1991, before the government announced in 1994 that it would pilot a system there. Two years later a S$285 million contract was signed to develop Singapore’s first driverless, fully automated LRT system spanning 14 stations over a 10.5km loop.

With its official launch in 1999, residents living in Bukit Panjang, Teck Whye and Choa Chu Kang could access the MRT network through the LRT’s terminus at Choa Chu Kang.

The LRT was also planned to run above ground so it could be free of road traffic issues – which former Member of Parliament (MP) for Choa Chu Kang Low Seow Chay saw as the main reason for its construction.

Recalling “terrible” traffic jams at the junction of Woodlands Road and Choa Chu Kang Road during the early 90s, he explained: “The Bukit Panjang residents had trouble accessing the Choa Chu Kang MRT station and bus interchange due to the poor traffic flow.”

“(But) before the LRT started, the KJE was opened in 1994, which diverted most of the heavy traffic. The traffic jam at said junction was solved, and the Choa Chu Kang transport hub could be easily accessible by residents by bus.”

“Even after the opening of the LRT five years later, the traffic load it could offer was also very limited,” said Dr Low. Each LRT coach can take up to 105 passengers.

He added that he “did not ask for the LRT”.

“When it was mooted, I objected to the cost of the S$285 million in building the LRT. In fact, I suggested a dedicated viaduct be built just for buses. It would solve congestion on the roads and was a much cheaper option. It was rejected for the reason that the LRT was an unmanned operation.”

A train along the Bukit Panjang LRT line. (File photo)

“RETROFITTING EXERCISE”

Back in 1994, Mr Mah Bow Tan, then the minister overseeing transport told Parliament of the need for “efficient and affordable” public transport, and that the potential of LRT as an internal feeder service was being studied.

“If these are viable, we can build light rails in the other existing new towns to supplement or replace the bus feeder services,” he said.

Echoing his points, Mr Gopinath Menon, a former chief transportation engineer at the Land Transport Authority (LTA), said this week: “There could have been an intention for LRT to replace all the feeder buses. This is easier said than done, because residents who are used to the convenience of feeder buses in an existing town would not readily agree to it. Today, residents have the LRT and the buses.”

Longtime Bukit Panjang residents Channel NewsAsia spoke to said there were not enough bus services plying the area in 1994, even if the town was also smaller at that time.

“Connectivity was bad,” said Sean Neo, 39. “I had to walk from my parents’ house at Jelapang Road to the main road near Bukit Panjang Plaza to take buses.”

Noting parallels with the earlier opening of Buangkok MRT station due to pressure from nearby residents, Mr Gopinath said: “The standard operating procedure in developing a town is for town and transport planners to work together to determine the various land uses and transport networks to serve these land uses.”

“This would have been done for Punggol and Sengkang LRT systems. In the case of Bukit Panjang, the LRT was a retrofitting exercise – that is, an ‘afterthought’ – and hence not as clean-cut as the other two towns.”

Professor Lee Der Horng, a transportation planning expert, said the LRT’s engineers would have needed to work within the boundaries and constraints of an already-developed town and its terrain.

“The moment you have the town built first, then the whole thing will just become challenging,” he said.

Commuters waiting to board a free shuttle bus as a result of a service suspension along the Bukit Panjang LRT line. (Photo: Francine Lim)

“ROLLERCOASTER”

Bukit Panjang’s LRT system is now due to be overhauled after logging hundreds of operational mishaps since its introduction. The list runs the gamut from track faults and dislodged wheels to doors opening while in transit and trains either breaking down, stalling or failing to stop.

In some cases, commuters have even had to walk along raised outdoor tracks, although severe delays and disruptions have been a more common issue.

Last weekend (Sep 9), train services along the entire line were unavailable for five hours due to broken rail support brackets. Mr Khaw had traced the issue to “hot junctions” where trains had to make “twists and turns”.

He added that the LRT was an “uncomfortable” ride – a consequence of being built after the town itself.

“No LRT is designed that way – in such a masochistic manner where you force yourself up and down, twist and turn,” said Mr Khaw. “I’ve taken the BPLRT a few times as a commuter, and I won’t say I enjoyed the ride because it caused me dizziness also – but that is life.”

Mr Khaw did not provide further comment for this story.

Prof Lee said such features were there for a reason. “The LRT can make use of downhill slopes to re-generate energy for the train itself and other purposes.”

“This is not unique to the BPLRT, but perhaps the initial design sacrificed too much of riding comfort. I agree, whenever I take BPLRT, I feel dizzy… Before Universal Studios, I used to joke that BPLRT was in lieu of a rollercoaster in Singapore.”

Residents, however, had mixed experiences to share, with some shrugging it off as something to get used to while others claimed pleasant and smooth journeys.

For 60-year-old housewife Zaiton Ismail, however, the many corners taken during the ride give her a “headache sometimes.” She added that “the LRT is much more uncomfortable than MRT. I still prefer taking buses though.”

Urban planning expert Dr Steven Choo said the Bukit Panjang LRT was a lesson in the importance of having “forward-looking planning, with integrated land use and transport planning right from the start”.

“With changes in technology, it gets a bit more complicated,” he noted. “For example, 20 years from now, when autonomous vehicles for short first- and last-mile connectivity are commonplace, and all developments are like the new generation of HDB new towns like Tengah, LRTs would be totally redundant.”

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