First Light Rail Transit system
by Lee, Siew Yeen
The Light Rapid Transit (LRT) system, also known as the Light Rail Transit system, is a fully automated rail service that links Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates to Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations.1 The LRT system was initially developed as part of the government’s plan to provide an alternative feeder service for the public and bring greater convenience to commuters.2 As of 2016, there are three LRT systems operating in Bukit Panjang, Sengkang and Punggol.3 The Bukit Panjang LRT, launched in 1999, was the first such transit system in Singapore.
In September 1991, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) unveiled the revised Concept Plan 1991, which detailed plans for Singapore in 2000, to 2010, to Year X, when the population would hit 4 million. Part of the Plan was the improvement of the transport system via an extended MRT system, a new LRT scheme, and improved roads. The LRT system would link up major urban centres in the north and east like Yishun, Punggol and Tampines by 2010, via connections with the public bus service and MRT stations.4
On 11 October 1994, then Communications Minister Mah Bow Tan revealed that the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation (MRTC) had commissioned British consultant, Oscar Faber TPA, to conduct a feasibility study for an LRT system in the Beach Road/Nicoll Highway corridor. The study, which cost S$499,000, was done in anticipation of the increased demand for transport services in the area due to several major developments such as Suntec City, Marina Centre and Shenton Way. The executive director of MRTC, Low Tien Sio, had also mentioned that the proposed LRT line could be linked to Dhoby Ghaut and City Hall MRT stations.5
At that time, Singapore was starting to face a rising demand for transportation, especially in major development areas where bus services might become insufficient to cater to people’s needs. The LRT was seen as a suitable transport alternative as it would be cheaper to construct and operate, since the system would be running above ground. The system would therefore be more cost-effective in less populated areas.6
During Parliament on 1 November 1994, Mah mentioned that he had tasked MRTC to study the use of an LRT in Singapore, particularly as an internal feeder service for new towns. The study would focus on two new towns, Bukit Panjang and Kangkar (now known as Sengkang), where land had already been reserved to construct LRT systems.7 He envisioned that new towns could be built, in the future, where LRT trains would run close to buildings, or even within buildings. People could even take the LRT outside their doorways to MRT stations.8
Proposal to pilot the LRT system
On 3 December 1994, Mah announced the government’s intention to pilot the building of LRT systems in Bukit Panjang and Buona Vista at a cost of about S$300 million each. Both systems were meant to lead the government’s plan to use the LRT to extend the reach and accessibility of the MRT system. Each system, estimated to be about 10 km long, would run above ground so that it would not affect the traffic or roads, or be affected by traffic jams. The trains would also be controlled by a central system so they would be automatic and would not require drivers to operate. The trains would be smaller and lighter, enabling them to make sharper turns when operating in crowded estates.9
Besides new housing estates, the government also considered the possibility of building LRT systems in more mature estates like Ang Mo Kio and Toa Payoh. However, decisions would only be made after the pilot programmes at Bukit Panjang and Buona Vista. After the roll-out of the LRT system, bus services which run the same route might be reduced so that the LRT systems are viable.10
Study tour to France and Germany
In order to learn more about the implementation of LRT systems, a delegation from Singapore, led by Mah, travelled to France and Germany on 6 February 1995.11 The team first observed the SK system in France on 7 February, which had a capacity of about 15 people. After this visit, Mah raised the possibility of building LRT stops at the void decks of HDB flats.12 The team noted that Singapore’s system should take into account the ease of increasing capacity and costs.13
On 8 February, the delegation observed another French system, the VAL, which had a capacity of up to 140 people.14 The team was impressed with how this system was able to integrate well with other modes of transport, an aspect which would be challenging in Singapore.15
The team went on to visit Dortmund University in Germany on 9 February, to observe the H-Bahn LRT system. This was in anticipation of the implementation of the Buona Vista LRT, which MRTC hoped could serve students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Polytechnic. The team returned to Singapore on 10 February.16
Upon the team’s return, Mah outlined how the French and German systems could be implemented in Singapore. The LRT could be used to provide feeder service, provide transport between HDB towns, or serve crowded areas such as the Central Business District (CDB). This was because the system had lower building and operational costs, and, being quieter, could be built closer to HDB flats.17
On 14 March 1995, the government announced the formation of the Land Transport Authority (LTA), a new statutory board in charge of land transport in Singapore, which MRTC would become part of within the next two years.18 In the White Paper published by LTA on 2 January 1996, the latter set out its goals for a world-class transport system in Singapore, one of which was the utilisation of LRT systems as feeder services to the MRT network, and the integration of LRT facilities with HDB estates to maximise convenience for residents.19
In addition to using the LRT system as feeder service, the government had also looked into the feasibility of using it to connect neighbouring towns with one another,20 such as Bedok-Tampines, Ang Mo Kio-Bishan-Toa Payoh, and the Jurong areas. Mah had clarified that conducting feasibility studies did not mean that the proposals would be feasible. Instead, the studies would look at whether the high costs involved in building the systems could be justified by the demand and ridership in those areas.21
The pilot LRT system – Bukit Panjang
On 10 February 1995, MRTC revealed that 13 consortia, some of which had Singaporean partners, had submitted tenders to supply LRT systems for the two pilot projects in Singapore.22 About a month later, on 17 March, eight of the consortia were shortlisted by MRTC to participate in the next stage of the tender, where they were asked to submit detailed proposals to run and maintain the LRT systems for the next three decades.23
During the opening of Woodlands MRT station on 10 February 1996, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced that the building of the LRT system at Bukit Panjang would proceed at a cost of about S$300 million, as a study by LTA had found that the venture might be viable. However, the system at Buona Vista did not get the go-ahead because it was not found to be economically viable.24
On 12 April 1996, LTA signed a S$285-million contract for the establishment of an automatic LRT system at Bukit Panjang, with a consortium which included Keppel Corporation (Singapore). Construction works began immediately so that the system could be ready by 1999.25 On 5 August 1997, during the 10th anniversary celebrations of Singapore MRT (SMRT), Mah announced that SMRT would be operating the Bukit Panjang LRT system when it was completed. SMRT was selected over other transport operators like Singapore Bus Services (SBS) and Trans-Island Bus Services (TIBS) because of its experience with operating the MRT system.26 SMRT formed a subsidiary company, Singapore LRT (SLRT), to operate the system.27
LTA involved the residents of Bukit Panjang in the choice of the trains’ colour, and the design of the stops’ roofs. Residents indicated a preference for blue trains and a barrel-roof design for the stops.28 Residents were also invited by the operator, Singapore LRT, to suggest names for the system in 1999.29 The LRT system increased the value of homes in Bukit Panjang, with more people indicating interest in buying houses in the area.30 However, during the construction process, residents had to put up with inconveniences, such as noise from piling work, and dust.31
On 6 November 1999, the Bukit Panjang LRT system was officially launched by then Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Tony Tan. The first service started at 1.22 pm, 8 min earlier than the scheduled time, due to the large crowd which had formed a queue all the way out to the main road. The fully-automated system measured 7.8 km, with its depot and control centre integrated with the developments in Bukit Panjang.32 The entire system consisted of 14 stations, with lifts to service the commuters. The trains were built with windows which turned opaque when they travelled close to residences, to protect residents’ privacy.33 Each LRT train had a capacity of 105 per coach.34
Despite slight delays on the day of the launch, the LRT system was seen as a new chapter in the development of a rapid-transit transport system in Singapore by then Communications and Information Technology Minister, Yeo Cheow Tong.35
After the launch, 19 bus services to Bukit Panjang were withdrawn or re-routed to avoid duplication of services between buses and the LRT.36 However, some residents had hoped that feeder bus services could continue, as their withdrawals would make travel inconvenient; in fact, the buses could serve as a form of back-up in the event of an LRT breakdown.37
The system suffered from teething issues since the day of its launch. There were reports of train delays of up to 40 min and malfunctioning of ticketing machines due to problems with the computer software. Commuters also experienced bumpy rides along certain stretches of rail, and doors opening slightly while the trains were moving.38 LTA estimated that the system was reliable about 95 percent of the time, and it would take about six months before the problems could be resolved.39
The safety of the system was put into question when a man, who was drunk, was killed at Jelapang Station on 15 January 2000 as he attempted to walk across the LRT tracks to the other platform. It was the first case of fatality for the system.40 Then, a collision occurred between two trains on 19 November due to an oversight by an operations staff, resulting in light injuries in three passengers. The accident had arisen because the tracking system had lost track of one of the trains, thus exposing another challenge for the LRT system.41
Between 2001 and 2016, the Bukit Panjang LRT system continued to face many glitches. It had had more than 150 incidents from its opening in 1999 to 2012, including the stalling of trains resulting in commuters having to walk along elevated tracks; doors opening while trains were moving; and wheels falling off. The system also had the most number of glitches per kilometre of track, among all the rail projects in operation. Ridership had grown only by 30 percent since its opening, leading to questions about its viability.42 By 2014, there were 59 delays within the first nine months.43 In 2016, the door of a train was thrown open while on the move, purportedly due to a design flaw in the system.44
On 25 June 2015, SMRT and LTA announced that the system would undergo major upgrading by 2019 to tackle the glitches and improve the reliability of the system. In the following year, the Ministry of Transport would study the upgrades required.45
By 2016, SMRT and LTA were considering a complete overhaul of the system via one of three options – deployment of self-powered, guided vehicles on existing viaducts; building of a new improved system; or renewal of the existing system with an updated signalling system. If none of the options proved feasible, then the system might be scrapped and replaced with buses, an option which then Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan believed was not feasible, as the roads would not be able to cope with the increase in traffic. Instead, he shared that the authorities were sourcing for new trains and rail components to replace the system’s first-generation assets.46
Goh Lee Kim
1. TransitLink. (2016). Using the LRT service. Retrieved 2016, October 29 from TransitLink website: http://www.transitlink.com.sg
2. Land Transport Authority. (1996). White Paper: A world class land transport system. Retrieved 2016, October 31 from Land Transport Authority website: https://www.lta.gov.sg
3. Land Transport Authority (LTA). (2015). Linking the heartlands. Retrieved 2016, October 29 from LTA website: https://www.lta.gov.sg
4. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (1991). Living the next lap. Retrieved 2016, October 29 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg; Tan, C. (1991, September 14). Into the future on MRT, LRT and semi-expressways. The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Leong, C. T. (1994, October 12). Light rail train system proposed. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Staying on the right track. (1994, October 17). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Woon, W. T. (1997, February 12). Sengkang will have…. The New Paper, p. 6; Leong, C. T. (1994, November 2). Studies on more extensive train network soon. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Drive? No, I LRT to work. (1994, November 26). The New Paper, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Leong, C. T. (1994, December 4). Green light for Light Rail system. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Light rail train system may be built in mature estates. (1994, December 4). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Leong, C. T. (1995, February 6). S’pore team to view light rail systems. The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Leong, C. T. (1995, February 9). HDB void-deck trains possible, says Mah. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Divyanathan, R. (1995, February 9). Search for LRT system takes off. The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Leong, C. T. (1995, February 10). More than one light rail system may be needed. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Divyanathan, R. (1995, February 10). French light rail transit system impresses S’pore team. The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Leong, C. T. (1995, February 11). University’s own light rail. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Leong, C. T. (1995, February 13). Light rail trains may link HDB towns: Mah. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1995, March 15). Moves to keep traffic flowing. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Land Transport Authority. (1996). White Paper: A world class land transport system. Retrieved 2016, October 31 from Land Transport Authority website: https://www.lta.gov.sg
20. Yeo, G. (1998, April 25). Towns may be linked by LRT too. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Yeo, G. (1998, December 5). More LRT lines under study. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Leong, C. T. (1995, February 13). Light Rail Train systems: Wide choice for S’pore. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Leong, C. T. (1995, March 18). MRTC shortlists 8 groups for bids to supply S’pore’s first LRT system. The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Leong, C. T. (1996, February 11). Bukit Panjang to get S’pore’s first light rail train. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Leong, C. T. (1996, April 13). $285m contract for LRT system signed. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Leong, C. T. (1997, August 6). SMRT to operate Bukit Panjang LRT. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Kaur, K. (1999, September 8). Promotional fares for LRT. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Bukit Panjang’s light rail system brings residents together – years before it is to run. (1996, September 29). The Straits Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Kaur, K. (1999, February 22). Power train? Super train? Slider? The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Yeo, G., Leong, C. T., & Sim, P. (1996, May 27). Light trains make flat prices boom. The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Leong, C. T., & Ting, S. L. (1997, April 14). Deafening – but only for a few weeks. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Yeo, G. (1999, November 7). LRT a hit on very first day. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. And the train is right on track. (1999, November 7). The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Low, C. (1999, November 8). Or open a new train network. The New Paper, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Thumbs up for Bkt Panjang’s LRT system. (1999, November 8). The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. LRT in place, so Bt Panjang bus services revamp. (1999, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 34. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Wong, F. W., & Yeo, G. (1999, December 22). Feeder bus service wanted alongside LRT. The Straits Times, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Kaur, K. (1999, November 11). LRT glitches caused by software. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Kaur, K. (1999, November 17). 6 months to fix LRT teething problems. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Tan, K. T. (2000, January 17). Man killed as he crosses LRT tracks. The Straits Times, p. 4; LRT death: Man was drunk. (2000, April 29). The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Koh, L. (2000, November 20). Three hurt in train collision. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Tan, C. (2012, April 24). Glitches common on Bukit Panjang LRT. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Tan, C. (2015, March 11). Commuters frustrated by lack of reliability. The Straits Times. Retrieved from ProQuest via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
44. Tan, C. (2016, January 27). LRT train door mishap exposes design flaw. The Straits Times. Retrieved from ProQuest via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
45. Lim, A. (2015, June 26). Bukit Panjang LRT system will be upgraded to boost reliability. The Straits Times; Retrieved from ProQuest via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
46. Tan, C. (2016, October 7). SMRT looking at options for Bukit Panjang LRT. The Straits Times; Lim, A. (2016, October 10). Scrapping Bukit Panjang LRT not feasible: Khaw. The Straits Times. Retrieved from ProQuest via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.