Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system



The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system is a rail network that is the backbone of Singapore’s public transport system. Officially launched in 1988, the MRT system currently comprises four main lines: North-South, East-West, North-East and Circle. Additional lines are in the process of construction. As of 2012, the rail network comprised 99 stations and was about 149 km long.1

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) regulates and oversees the operation of the MRT system. Two operators are responsible for the daily running of the MRT system: SMRT Trains Ltd (North-South, East-West and Circle lines) and SBS Transit (North-East line).2


Background: The MRT debate
The idea for Singapore’s MRT system originated from a concept plan that was based on a 1967 study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Singapore State and City Planning Department. Projecting a population of 3.4 million by 1992, the study called for improved road infrastructure and a mass transit system to cope with the anticipated increase in travel to the central area of Singapore.3 By the 1970s, traffic congestion in the city had also worsened, making it imperative for action to be taken to ease the congestion.4

In 1972, a team of consultants and professional officers seconded from the government embarked on a major transport study known as the Singapore Mass Transit Study. In phase one of the study, the team examined existing and future transport demands, analysed various options and made recommendations for government investment in public transportation.5 The team recommended the rail mass transit as the best option for meeting the anticipated travel demands of Singapore.6


Phase two of the study, which commenced in 1975, examined the technical, economic and financial feasibility of the mass transit system.7 This study argued that a bus-rail system was a “superior alternative” to an all-bus system, with only a remote chance of a disastrous result.8

Despite the study’s recommendation for the development of a MRT system, the high costs involved and the possible impact on patterns of land use and economic activities prevented the government from making an immediate decision. The issue was complicated by a review of the phase two study by a team from the World Bank. The World Bank team had issues with the Singapore team’s costing and assessment of the relative benefits of the bus-rail plan compared to an all-bus system.9


Phase three of the study was conducted between 1979 and 1980, and provided a preliminary engineering design for the recommended transit system.10 In 1980, a Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority was appointed to undertake preparatory work for the construction of a possible MRT system.11

Despite the findings of the mass transit studies, the government was still hesitant to commit to the MRT system. A team of foreign consultants (also known as the Harvard team) led by team leader Kenneth Hansen was engaged to review the previous mass transit and other transportation studies.12

In their report, the Hansen team argued that the earlier studies were based on incorrect assumptions and thus failed to consider other approaches to solve Singapore’s transport problems. Rather than a MRT system, the Hansen team recommended a high performance all-bus system coupled with feeder routes and motorcar restraint. Even if Singapore were to develop a MRT system, the team suggested that only one line be built as they believed that this would be sufficient to relieve traffic congestion and allow the bus system to function.13


The Hansen report resulted in much public attention on the MRT issue. It was widely publicised in the local media and a forum debate between the opposing consultants was televised.14 The Straits Times also reported that the proposed MRT system was the issue that attracted the most interest from its readers. The newspaper published a total of 33 letters from the public on the topic in its Forum section between July and December 1980.15

In May 1982, the government finally made the decision to build and completely finance the proposed S$5-billion MRT system.16 In announcing the decision, then Minister for Communications Ong Teng Cheong said that the construction of the MRT was not only an investment in transport but also a means of boosting long-term investor confidence and bringing about multiplier effects such as increasing land values in Singapore.17

In 1983, the Provisional MRT Authority was replaced by MRT Corporation, which was tasked with constructing and operating the MRT system.18 In 1987, a new company called Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) Ltd was established to handle the operations of the MRT system.19

The first lines

The MRT system approved in 1982 was 67 km long and consisted of three lines: the North-South Line from Yishun to Marina Bay; the East-West Line from Pasir Ris to Boon Lay; and the Western Line between Jurong town and Bukit Panjang.20 The North-South Line was the first to be constructed as the north-south corridor was seen as the one most badly affected by traffic congestion and the passenger traffic on this line was expected to be the highest.21

The MRT network was to be comprised of 42 stations, of which 15 were underground and 27 above ground. The underground stations were to be built using a “cut and cover” method or by bored tunnelling. Bored tunnelling would be used in heavily developed areas to reduce disruption to traffic, pollution and inconvenience to the public.22


On 7 November 1987, the MRT system began operations.23 On 12 March 1988, the MRT system was officially launched by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.24 A 16-km-long line extension to Woodlands, known as the Woodlands MRT Line, was announced in 1991 and completed in 1996.

Additional lines
North-East Line (NEL)
As early as 1984, the government had begun studying the possibility of a North-East Line (NEL). Residents in Singapore’s north-east region had been lobbying for a MRT line as roads servicing their area were becoming increasingly congested.25


The line was approved in principle in 1988, but the government would not commit to a timeframe of when the line would be actually constructed. The expected ridership at the time was not anticipated to be high enough to justify the cost of construction. A solution came when the government revised its financing formula for train lines in 1996 to reduce the financial pressure on the train operator. Then Minister for Communications Mah Bow Tan announced that work would start on the NEL that same year.26

Operated by SBS Transit, the NEL opened to the public on 20 June 2003.27 Spanning 20 km and comprising 16 stations stretching from Harbourfront to Punggol, the NEL was the world’s first fully-automated heavy rail system when it came into operation. This driverless system operates under the control of a sophisticated electronic system that monitors the trains’ various functions.28 The NEL was also the first line to host the Art in Transit programme where public art is displayed in MRT stations.

The Buangkok and Woodleigh MRT stations remained closed when the NEL line became operational in 2003. Operator SBS Transit had decided then that passenger usage of these two stations would be too low to justify the costs of running them.29


Grassroots leaders of Punggol South lobbied the government to open Buangkok station. Their efforts included placing eight white elephant cut-outs on the road divider outside the station during the visit of then Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to the area in 2005. The elephants were meant to symbolise what residents felt about the station: that it was a “white elephant” (something expensive but of limited value). The provocative statement led to a police investigation and public debate over the boundaries of political expression in Singapore.30 Following two-and-a-half years of lobbying efforts, Buangkok station was finally opened on 15 January 2006.31
Circle Line
In the 1990s, a circle line that would link existing MRT lines running into the city was proposed. The aim of the line was to enhance connectivity between suburban areas and reduce travelling time for commuters.32 The line would enable commuters to bypass busy MRT interchanges at Raffles Place, City Hall and Dhoby Ghaut, thus speeding up travel and enlivening the subregional centres connected to the new line.33


Subsequently, the development of the Circle Line was divided into five stages with stage one forecasted to be operational by 2006. Construction of the line was delayed by a tunnel collapse at Nicoll Highway on 20 April 2004. As a result, the Nicoll Highway station was moved to a new site and reduced in size. The line was launched in stages with the fully completed line opening on 8 October 2011.34

Accidents and breakdowns
The first MRT accident was a front-to-back collision between two trains at Clementi station on 5 August 1993. A total of 132 commuters were reported to have been injured in this accident.35


On 3 April 2011, another high-profile MRT accident occurred when a 14-year-old Thai girl fell onto the MRT tracks at Ang Mo Kio station and was hit by a train. She lost both her legs in the accident.36 The girl’s father subsequently sued SMRT for S$3.4million, which was the estimated cost of the girl’s medical bills and the prosthetic limbs that she would need for the rest of her life, but lost the case.37 As a result of the accident, screen doors were installed in all 36 above-ground MRT stations to prevent commuters from falling onto the tracks.38

Two of the worst MRT service breakdowns occurred on 15 and 17 December 2011. The breakdowns disrupted the travel plans of more than 200,000 commuters and caused a public outcry over SMRT’s poor handling of the incidents. A Committee of Inquiry (COI) was subsequently formed by the government to review the disruptions, while SMRT President and Chief Executive Officer Saw Phaik Hwa resigned from her posts on 6 January 2012.39

Between March 2012 and January 2013, the MRT service on SBS Transit’s NEL suffered a series of disruptions.40 Three of these disruptions were caused by corroded stainless steel wires and U-bolts that broke, resulting in the overhead power cables falling onto the tracks.41

Future development plans
In the 2008 Land Transport Masterplan, Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) committed to improving public transport so that it would become a mode of choice for commuters and even car owners.42 In order to achieve this goal, the LTA aimed to increase the rail network from 138 km to 278 km by 2020.43


In its 2013 annual report, the LTA committed to doubling the number of MRT interchanges from 15 to 30 and increasing the rail network to 360 km. The objective was to have 8 in 10 Singaporean households within a 10-min walk from a MRT station by 2030. The LTA also announced plans to expand the fleet of MRT trains, replace ageing rail sleepers and upgrade the signalling systems on the North-South and East-West lines in order to cut down waiting times and provide commuters with a smoother, faster and safer journey. In June 2013, the LTA also started a one-year trial offering free or discounted train rides to 16 MRT stations in the city in order to encourage commuters to travel earlier in the morning. This trial was conducted to address the issue of peak period congestion in the mornings for MRT rides into the city area.44

The LTA has announced plans for several new lines and extensions to current lines:

Tuas West Extension
The Tuas West Extension will connect four new stations in Tuas with the Joo Koon station along the East-West Line. The project is expected to be completed in 2016.45


Downtown Line (DTL)
The DTL will facilitate direct travel from the northwestern and eastern parts of Singapore to the Central Business District and Marina Bay area. Work on the project commenced in 2007 and is divided into three phases. The entire line is expected to be ready by 2017.46


Thomson Line (TSL)
The TSL will complement the existing North-South Line by linking residential estates in the north to the city. The line is expected to be complete by 2018.47


Eastern Region Line (ERL)
The ERL will link residents in Changi and the East Coast area to Marina Bay. It is expected to be complete by 2020.48


Jurong Region Line (JRL)
The JRL will connect residents of Choa Chu Kang, Boon Lay and the future Tengah area to activity hubs in Jurong West. The line is expected to be complete by 2025.49

Cross-Island Line (CRL)

Spanning Changi in the east to Jurong in the west, the CRL will provide commuters with an alternative to the East-West Line. The line is expected to be complete by 2030.50

Timeline
1967–1971:
Study by UNDP and State and City Planning department.
1972–1974: Singapore Mass Transit study phase 1.
1975–1977: Singapore Mass Transit study phase 2.
1979–1980: Singapore Mass Transit study phase 3.
1980: Appointment of Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority.
1980: Hansen report released.
1982: MRT project given approval by the government.
1983: Provisional MRT Authority replaced by Mass Rapid Transit Corporation.
7 November 1987: MRT system opened to first paying customers.
12 March 1988: MRT system officially launched by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
5 August 1993: First MRT accident.

1996: MRT extension to Woodlands completed.
1996: Work on NEL started.
20 June 2003: NEL opened to the public.
20 April 2004: Collapse of Nicoll Highway delayed construction of the Circle Line.
15 January 2006: Buangkok station opened on NEL after lobbying by grassroots leaders. 
3 April 2011:
14-year-old Thai girl fell onto the tracks at Ang Mo Kio station and lost both her legs after being hit by a train.
8 October 2011: All stations on the Circle Line opened.
15 December 2011: MRT breakdown disrupted train services from Braddell to Marina Bay stations.51

17 December 2011: MRT breakdown disrupted train services from Toa Payoh to Marina Bay stations.52
6 January 2012: SMRT President and Chief Executive Officer Saw Phaik Hwa resigned from her posts.
March 2012–January 2013: Series of major service disruptions on the NEL.



Author
Stephanie Ho



References

1. Land Transport Authority. (2012). Annual Report 2011/2012. Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 25. (Call no.: RCLOS q354.595700878 SLTAAR-[AR])
2. Land Transport Authority. (2013, May 17). Train operators. Retrieved from http://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltaweb/en/public-transport/mrt-and-lrt-trains/train-operators.html
3. Seah C. M. (1981). The MRT debate in Singapore: To do or not to do? Southeast Asian Affairs. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 293. (Call no.: RSING 959 SAA)
4. Mass rapid transit system a must. (1971, January 26). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Singapore Mass Transit Study Phase I: Report in brief. (1974). Singapore: Wilbur Smith and Associates, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 WIL)
6. Singapore Mass Transit Study Phase I: Report in brief. (1974). Singapore: Wilbur Smith and Associates, p.18. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 WIL)
7. Singapore Mass Transit Study Phase II: Report in brief. (1977). Singapore: Wilbur Smith and Associates, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 WIL)
8. Singapore Mass Transit Study Phase II: Report in brief. (1977). Singapore: Wilbur Smith and Associates, p. 36. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 WIL)
9. Seah C. M. (1981). The MRT debate in Singapore: To do or not to do? Southeast Asian Affairs.  Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 299. (Call no.: RSING 959 SAA)
10. Singapore Mass Transit Study Phase III: Preliminary engineering design. (1981). Singapore: Mass Transit Study Unit, p. 1. (Call no.: RCLOS 625.4095957 SIN)
11. Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority, Republic of Singapore. (1982). Annual Report 1980/81 and 1981/82. Singapore: Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority, p. 4. (Not available in NLB holdings)
12. MRT review team begins work today. (1980, June 6). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Rimmer, P. J. (1986). Rikisha to Rapid Transit. Sydney: Pergamon Press, p. 144. (Call no.: RSING 388.40959 RIM)
14. Rimmer, P. J. (1986). Rikisha to Rapid Transit. Sydney: Pergamon Press, p. 300. (Call no.: RSING 388.40959 RIM)
15. Khoo, H. S. (1981, March 2). The proposed MRT system was ‘hottest’ topic last year… The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority, Republic of Singapore. (1983). Annual report 1982/83. Singapore: Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority, p. 5. (Call no.: RCLOS 388.40605957 PMRTAS-[AR])
17. Go-ahead for MRT: Work starts in ’84. (1982, May 30). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Mass Rapid Transit Corporation. (1984). Annual report 1984. Singapore: Mass Rapid Transit Corporation, p. 5. (Call no.: RCLOS 388.40605957 PMRTAS-[AR])
19. Lim, E. H. (1987, August 7). SBS to be offered up to 25% of MRT company. The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Mass Rapid Transit Corporation. (1984). Annual report 1984. Singapore: Mass Rapid Transit Corporation, p. 5. (Call no.: RCLOS 388.40605957 PMRTAS-[AR])
21. Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority, Republic of Singapore. (1983). Annual report 1982/83. Singapore: Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority, p. 5. (Call no.: RCLOS 388.40605957 PMRTAS-[AR])
22. Mass Rapid Transit Corporation. (1984). Annual report 1984. Singapore: Mass Rapid Transit Corporation, p. 7. (Call no.: RCLOS 388.40605957 PMRTAS-[AR])
23. The MRT story. (1988). Singapore: Mass Rapid Transit Corp., p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 MRT)
24. The MRT story. (1988). Singapore: Mass Rapid Transit Corp., p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 MRT)
25. Leong, C. T. (2003). Getting there: The story of the North East line. Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 31. (Call no.: RSING q625.4095957 LEO)
26. Leong, C. T. (2003). Getting there: The story of the North East line. Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 31. (Call no.: RSING q625.4095957 LEO); Leong, C. T. (1996, January 20). Immediate start for North-East line. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Goh, C. L. (2003, June 21). It’s a smooth ride on NEL – mostly. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Leong, C. T. (2003). Getting there: The story of the North East line. Singapore: Land Transport Authority, pp. 221–222. (Call no.: RSING q625.4095957 LEO)
29. Lim, K. (2003, June 18). Two of 16 NEL stations won't open on debut. The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Low, A. (2005, December 10). Green light for the white elephant. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Tan, T. (2006, January 16). All aboard at 'white elephant' station. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Cheong, C. (2012). The Circle Line: Linking all lines. Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 36. (Call no.: RSING 388.42095957 CHE)
33. Cheong, C. (2012). The Circle Line: Linking all lines. Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 38. (Call no.: RSING 388.42095957 CHE)
34. Cheong, C. (2012). The Circle Line: Linking all lines. Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 46. (Call no.: RSING 388.42095957 CHE)
35. Pereira, B. (1993, August 6). MRT trains collide at Clementi: 132 hurt. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Jalelah Abu Bakart. (2011, April 4). Thai teen loses both legs after being hit by MRT train. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Soh, E. (2011, October 13). Thai teen who lost legs back for lawsuit. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, J. (2014, October 1). Thai girl who lost legs after falling onto tracks loses appeal against SMRT, LTA. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva
via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
38. Goh, C. L. (2012, March 15). Doors now up at all MRT platforms. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Neo, C. C. (2012, January 10). More than just service gaps. Today; Sreedharan, S. (2012, January 7). SMRT CEO resigns immediately. Today. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
40. Tan, C. (2013, January 11). Nearly 60,000 affected in 4th major NEL breakdown in 10 months. The Straits Times, pp. 2-3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Sim, R., & Chow, J. (2013, February 16). Corrosion in bolts, wires caused MRT disruptions. The Straits Times, p. 6.  Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. LT Masterplan: A people-centred land transport system. (2008). Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 27. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 SIN)
43. LT Masterplan: A people-centred land transport system. (2008). Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 SIN)
44. Land Transport Authority. (2013). Annual Report 2012/2013. Singapore: Land Transport Authority, pp. 16–20. Retrieved from http://www.lta.gov.sg/content/dam/ltaweb/corp/PublicationsResearch/files/AnnualReports/1213/LTA%20Annual%20Report%202012-2013.pdf
45. Land Transport Authority. (2013, August 23). Tuas West Extension. Retrieved from http://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltaweb/en/public-transport/projects/tuas-west-extension.html
46. LT Masterplan: A people-centred land transport system. (2008). Singapore: Land Transport Authority, p. 26. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 SIN)
47. LT Masterplan: A people-centred land transport system. (2008). Singapore: Land Transport Authority, pp. 27, 34. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 SIN)
48. Land Transport Authority. (2013, August 23). Eastern Region Line. Retrieved from http://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltaweb/en/public-transport/projects/eastern-region-line.html
49. Good news: New MRT lines island-wide. (2013, February). Connect, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 C)
50. Good news: New MRT lines island-wide. (2013, February). Connect, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 388.4095957 C)
51. Breakdown on North-South MRT line. (2011, December 15). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
52. MRT breaks down again. (2011, December 17). Channel News Asia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/



The information in this article is valid as at 5 November 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
 

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