Cross Island MRT: A unique line with great potential

Besides increasing connectivity, new Cross Island Line could be used to transport freight

News of any new MRT line cannot come sooner. So it is too with the Cross Island Line, which was announced six years ago, in the 2013 Land Transport Master Plan.

Stretching 50km from Changi to Tuas, it was to be up by 2030.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday that the first phase spanning 29km will be completed by 2029, 10 years from now. Unless the next phases get started soon, completion of the whole line may miss the 2030 target, a target pegged to another: to have eight in 10 households within a 10-minute walk of a station so that Singapore can be “car-lite”.

The hold-up (if indeed it is one) may have to do with the real possibility of having to tunnel beneath the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

This has long been a contentious issue with nature groups. Because even if the line is underground, ventilation shafts and escape hatches will have to go up to the surface.

These structures are sizeable and would require cut-and-cover construction, a method which is almost certain to have an environmental impact on the gazetted protected area.

At this stage, the alternative alignment – skirting around the reserve – looks unwieldy as it involves sharp right-angle turns and the likely acquisition of private properties. Mr Khaw told Parliament in 2016 that a skirting alignment would cost $2 billion more and add six minutes to travelling time.

The Government will have to make its case for taking the lower-cost option, financially at least. And the sooner it is able to do so, the sooner it can get on with the rest of the project.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan (second from left) looking at a map showing Phase 1 of the Cross Island Line during a visit to Bright Hill station yesterday. With him are (from left) Ms Cheng Li Hui, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport; Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Baey Yam Keng; and GPC for Transport members Melvin Yong and Ang Wei Neng. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Even though it will be Singapore’s eighth MRT project, it is a unique one. Stations will be designed to accommodate eight-car trains, but operations will start with six-car trains. It is the first line here to have this scaleable feature. It is similar to what Hong Kong had done for its MTR. A system which can be scaled up to cater to rising demand shows foresight and sound planning.

Phase 1 of the project stretches from Changi East to Bright Hill. It will have only 12 stations – half the number you see on a line of a similar length.

There are long empty stretches between some stations – for instance, from Aviation Park to Loyang; and from Tampines North to Defu. The latter is especially long, estimated at 6km or more. This is where Paya Lebar Air Base is currently sited. The airbase however, will be relocated from 2030, freeing up 800ha for residential and commercial use.

Engineering provisions for future stations – such as station boxes – should be built along this stretch. Otherwise, adding stations to a line that is already up and running will be unthinkable.

If, however, there are no plans for stations along these stretches (which is equally unthinkable), commuters should brace themselves for sharper-than-usual fare rises down the road.

This is because of the Public Transport Council’s new Network Capacity Factor (NCF), which tends to push fares higher if more transport capacity is created and demand does not rise correspondingly.

If the Cross Island Line has fewer stations – and therefore fewer passenger catchment areas – the NCF could work against commuters for reasons which are beyond their control. In fact, they would actually face a double whammy – poorer accessibility and the high probability of sharper fare rises.

Still, the value proposition of the Cross Island Line is strong.

Fewer stations could mean an express service. And with interchanges possibly at every line except the Circle Line, the Cross Island Line will improve all-round connectivity and make it more viable for folks to ditch their cars for public transport.

It will serve areas which are not served by rail today. These include Tavistock (the edge of Serangoon Gardens), Serangoon North, Defu and Loyang.

What would be novel would be to incorporate freight on the Cross Island Line. It easily links Changi Airport to the new Tuas seaport. Rail freight movement will be swift and efficient, and will remove tens of thousands of pollutive trucks and lorries from the road.

Perhaps the environmental gains here might be sufficient to offset the losses Singapore would incur if the line goes through the nature reserve.

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