According to the 2018 study “Elements of Success: Urban Transportation Systems of 24 Global Cities” by consulting firm McKinsey, Singapore has one of the most accessible public transportation systems among 24 major cities around the world. More than 80 indicators were used to evaluate the transportation systems of 24 cities across five key dimensions: accessibility, affordability, quality, functionality and sustainability. Singapore’s transportation system and infrastructure has consistently been ranked as a model system. This is due to Singapore’s forward-thinking urban planning, which employs the ring model. The Singapore government has used policy and technology to balance transportation demand and supply, optimising existing sustainable systems, while reducing the use of more environmentally damaging modes of transportation.

The mass rapid transit (MRT) system in Singapore is a combined network of underground and above-ground trains that provide the majority of public transportation services on the island. There are also systems in place that ensure uninterrupted network coverage that extends the underground train network, increasing its functionality and thereby benefiting commuters. By 2030, the network will span over 360 km, surpassing the networks of Tokyo and Hong Kong and coming close to London’s 436 km network.

The MRT funding system in Singapore is very different from that of buses. Because of the high cost of constructing and maintaining the required facilities, train projects have the characteristics of a natural monopoly. New MRT projects are costly and risky to finance. It is also difficult to keep MRT fares affordable without putting the government’s finances under too much strain. Singapore’s government uses a unique model for infrastructure spending that distinguishes capital expenditures from operating costs. The government finances the building of MRT tracks and facilities, as well as the purchase of new MRT trains, and then leases the MRT operations to private companies for extended periods of time. Private operators must charge rates that are affordable for commuters rather than charging rates at the maximum cost recovery levels. Commercial MRT operators are expected to benefit from increased cost efficiency in the operation of MRT ventures. The public-private partnership (PPP) model has proved to be a financially effective and viable long-term method of funding public infrastructure projects. In Singapore, rail services are currently operated by two public transport operators (PTOs) – SBS Transit and SMRT Corporation. The operations of these two PTOs are regulated by the government.

Renewal projects

As new lines and stations are added to cater to increasing ridership volumes and to meet rising commuter demands, older networks also require restoration to ensure that they perform at maximum efficiency. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) began a multiyear rail renewal project in 2012 to improve the networks, platforms and trains on the two oldest routes, the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL).

The LTA is on schedule to finish the $2.5 billion multiyear renewal plan for the NSEWL’s six key systems by 2026. Three projects have been finished till date, with the plan now in its second stage. Phase 2 includes the reconstruction of track circuits and power supply networks, as well as the introduction of 106 upgraded trains into passenger service beginning in 2022. The North-South Line station track circuit replacement is nearly complete, and construction on the East-West Line station track circuit replacement has also begun. A total of 180 km of power cables have been laid, and all 64P touch voltage protection circuits have been upgraded with modern voltage-regulating devices in the power supply system. With the early closure and late opening of train stations, engineering hours have been extended to step up the pace of the remaining work.

Fig. 1 highlights the timeline of the NSEWL renewal.

The renewal of NSEWL’s six core systems started in 2016. The projects that have been completed so far are:

  • Re-sleepering: smoother rides are now possible because of hardier concrete sleepers that replaced wooden sleepers
  • Third rail replacement: more reliable services are now available with a third rail that delivers power to the rail line
  • New signalling systems: communications-based train control signalling systems have enhanced operations

SMRT is leading the charge to modernise the power supply grid by using optical fibre cables to relay real-time monitoring. The project began in 2018 and is expected to be finished by 2024. SMRT is replacing its current trains with 106 new trains from Bombardier. The project is due for completion by 2026.

New lines

Bukit Panjang LRT

Construction on the Bukit Panjang LRT (BPLRT) started in 2018 and is scheduled to be completed by 2024. An updated signalling system is being installed by SMRT, LTA and Bombardier, with Bombardier’s overseas research laboratories overseeing software development for the new communications-based train control (CBTC) signalling system. BPLRT’s maintenance and renewal work has been boosted, resulting in increased consistency.

Circle Line Stage 6

With the completion of three additional Circle Line Stage 6 stations – Keppel, Cantonment and Prince Edward Road – the Circle Line will soon be a full circle. Shorter travel times and more alternative routes away from overcrowded interchange stations are planned to increase convenience for commuters. To meet the rising demand, 23 additional trains have been added, bringing the fleet total to 87. Work is also under way to begin a series of framework upgrades to the current CCL in collaboration with SMRT. Fig. 2 highlights the future MRT system map.

Jurong Region Line

The 24 km Jurong Region Line (JRL), Singapore’s seventh MRT line, is expected to make travelling to the west more efficient. The line is expected to support both ongoing and prospective developments in western Singapore, as well as improve connectivity to the Jurong area, with 24 stations opening in three stages. Concurrent with the station’s building, first- and last-mile connectivity will be improved.

The construction on this line will be carried out in three phases. The first phase involves the construction of 10 stations along JRL West, including at Bahar Junction, Choa Chu Kang and Boon Lay. Seven stations will be built along JRL East to link the Pandan Reservoir and Tengah in the second phase. The second stage of construction is expected to be completed in 2027. Extensions to Jurong Pier in the south and to NTU in the west will be built as part of Phase 3. Phase 3 is expected to be finished in 2028. Several contracts have been awarded for this line.

Table 1 lists the key contracts awarded for the JRL.

key contracts awarded for the JRL

Cross Island Line 

The Cross Island Line (CRL) is a 50 km long, entirely underground MRT line being constructed by the LTA in collaboration with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). Plans for the construction of the CRL were announced in January 2013. On completion, it will be Singapore’s longest underground rail line.

More than 100,000 households will benefit from the proposed CRL, which will extend more than 50 km and connect residential areas in central, north-eastern, and eastern Singapore to recreational spaces such as Changi Beach Park and Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Phase 1 of the CRL will span 29 km and include 12 stations, extending from Aviation Park to Bright Hill. The construction of this portion will be conducted in three stages. The 7.3 km CRL-Punggol extension will provide a direct connection for passengers commuting between eastern areas such as Pasir Ris and Tampines North and north-eastern areas such as Punggol and Sengkang. First- and last-mile connectivity will be improved as well. Many contracts for this line have been awarded recently.

Table 2 lists the key contracts awarded for the CRL

Thompson-East Coast Line 

The Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL) is an MRT rail project that will be merged with the Thomson Line (TSL) and the Eastern Region Line (ERL), which are both currently under construction. The project was announced by the LTA in 2014. The TEL will span 43 km and will connect 30 km of the TSL with 13 km of the ERL. The work on the station is being carried out in five phases. The line is expected to be completed by 2024. It will add 31 stations and seven interchanges.

The first two phases have been completed as of date, with the first phase adding three stations, at Woodlands, Woodlands North, and Woodland South. The second phase was completed in 2020 and added Mayflower, Caldecott, Bright Hill, Lentor, Upper Thomson and Springleaf stations to the line. Currently, work is being conducted on the last three phases. The third phase will provide direct access to the central business district and to the Marina Bay area. The phase is scheduled to be completed in 2021 with the opening of 13 stations and four interchanges. The fourth phase will involve the construction of seven stations stretching from Tanjong Rhu to Bayshore and will open for passengers in 2023. The final phase will add two new stations and one interchange at Sungei Bedok. Work is expected to finish by 2024.

Table 3 lists the key contracts awarded for the TEL

Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link

The 4 km cross-border Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System [RTS] link will connect the two countries of Malaysia and Singapore. The LTA and the Malaysia Mass Rapid Transit Corporation are jointly working on the railway project. RTS Operations, a joint venture (JV) established by Prasarana Malaysia and Singapore’s SMRT Corporation, will run the new RTS rail link for a duration of 30 years. The agreement for the JV was signed in July 2020. Construction work for the line will start in  2021 and will be finished by the end of 2026.

The RTS in both countries aims to enhance mobility, improve connectivity and encourage economic development. It will be able to transport 10,000 passengers per hour in either direction, alleviating traffic congestion on the Johor Causeway.

Table 4 lists the key contracts awarded for the Johor Bahru-Singapore RTS link.

Technical innovations

Across MRT’s existing tracks, trains will be fitted with real-time performance management systems, allowing faults to be identified and repaired quickly. Trains will be designed with automatic track inspection (ATI) systems, which use monitors and smart analytics to constantly monitor track health. With improved data collection, predictive maintenance is planned to be implemented.

The first section of the new Downtown Line simulation system opened at the Gali Batu Depot in February 2020. This is the second centre for the NSEWL, following the opening of the first dedicated signalling simulation facility at the Bishan Depot in 2018. Via an enhanced testing process, the first facility has made progress in bolstering the NSEWL’s new signalling system. The second facility is expected to make even more progress in diagnostics and simulation. The enhanced reliability enabled by technological facilities is set to be expanded, with $100 million set aside over the next five years for the deployment of these facilities for the TEL, North East Line, and Circle Line. SBS Transit, SMRT and ST Engineering were selected in June 2019 to help with quicker in-house diagnoses and repairs of defective electronic cards, resulting in less downtime for customers.

A $639.5 million contract for the design and engineering of an Integrated Train Testing Centre (ITTC) with 11 km of test tracks was awarded in April 2020. The 50 hectare test site will provide integrated high-speed network testing for new and existing MRT lines. This will reallocate engineering time on the existing lines for other tasks, including repairs and replacement. The ITTC’s first phase is expected to open by the end of 2022. The centre will be fully operational by the end of 2024.

Impact of Covid-19

Several ongoing projects were stalled due to the unavailability of construction workers as a result of Covid-19 restrictions in the country in the first half of 2020. The LTA aims to hit its target of expanding the existing rail networks by about 50 per cent by 2030. Measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a drop in the usage of public transport, although demand did recover during the second half of the year. Ridership on trains had initially fallen by up to 80 per cent during the initial period of the pandemic. Demand fell four times as much as it did during the SARS epidemic when ridership saw a maximum decline of 20 per cent when the outbreak was at its peak. By June 2020, ridership had recovered to about 40 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.