By Phyllis Lee and Laura Zhang
To those who don’t live in the Choa Chu Kang area, the Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (BPLRT) is an alien and unfamiliar system. Hence, The Independent (TISG) decided to explore the ground and find out what exactly is going on down there on Monday (Oct 9).
Is the BPLRT really a problem?
Last Monday (Oct 2), it was announced that there will be a tender called later this year to revamp the flawed design behind the BPLRT.
The contract to overhaul the system will be awarded in the first quarter of 2018.
Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng then revealed in Parliament that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and SMRT will be carrying out detailed checks of the LRT’s power rails and perform hotspot replacement works where needed in the immediate term.
“LTA will also install a new power source at Ten Mile Junction substation to provide a backup to the existing system at Choa Chu Kang,” he said.
SMRT is also apparently forming a “quick response team” to rectify train faults and shorten service recovery times.
Operated by SMRT Light Rail, the BPLRT line was opened on Nov 6, 1999. The 7.8km route is the first of its kind in Singapore, and offers three services.
Two of its services start from Choa Chu Kang and travels to Bukit Panjang before splitting up – one taking a clockwise loop via Senja station, and the other taking an anti-clockwise loop via Petir station. They will then meet at Bukit Panjang and terminate at Choa Chu Kang.
The third service starts at Ten Mile Junction station and travels clockwise via the Bukit Panjang loop.
Other than the BPLRT, there are two other LRT lines in Singapore – namely the Sengkang LRT (SKLRT) and Punggol LRT. Both automated guideway transit systems are operated by SBS Transit, and were opened in 2003 and 2005 respectively.
Bukit Panjang LRT rides too shaky and unstable
TISG spoke to 10 commuters along the BPLRT and SKLRT lines each, with those at the latter expressing more positive opinions as compared to those at the former.
Those along the BPLRT line cited problems such as frequent breakdowns, long waiting times, malfunctioning doors, poor ventilation and unstable hand rails in the trains.
A civil servant who travels from Senja to Choa Chu Kang for work daily, who wanted to be known only as Mr Koh, said that the station gets overcrowded during peak hours and hopes that the frequency of the train services can be increased.
He also pointed out that the trains were quite shaky.
“I don’t know if it’ll just drop off one day,” he said, half-serious.
His sentiment reflects that of Minister Khaw, who had said last month:
“No LRT is designed that way, in such a masochistic manner, where you force yourself up and down, twist and turn… It caused me dizziness… but that’s life.”
Another commuter, Mdm Agnes Low, noted that about half of the trains were older models that fail to provide comfortable rides.
“Usually the old and new trains alternate. I think there’re not enough new trains to replace the old ones. The older ones have poor ventilation, and the handrails are not stable. When the train is jerking, you’re actually moving with the handrail to the left and right,” the 42-year-old housewife said.
Despite the multiple faults, seven out of ten people taking the BPLRT were still grateful that there is such a mode of transport for those living in the area.
“I need to be at work at about 5 am every day, so I’ll take the earliest LRT train service, which starts at about 4.45 am. I read that the MRT is causing inconvenience, but so far my experience with the LRT has been good,” said a 70-year-old retiree, who currently works at a coffee shop.
Long waiting times, congestion and disruptions at Sengkang LRT
Mr Vijay, 39, who has been living near Bakau station for nine years, said that the LRT usually gets congested around Compassvale station.
“Maybe there can be short trips from Sengkang to Compassvale, instead of having one full cycle,” he suggested.
A 13-year-old student, who gave her name as Leow, said that that many students – including herself – had been late for school last week due to a fault in the system. According to Leow, a train on the west loop was supposed to arrive, but one on the east loop one came instead. It took a while before the right train appeared.
“It’’s not very punctual sometimes. When it comes late, we often get the late slip because we’re late for school,” she said.
Despite dissatisfaction over trains and platforms being overcrowded during the peak hours, majority of the commuters polled still enjoy the convenience provided by the line.
A Sengkang resident for the past 10 years, Mdm Julia, 58, compared the efficiency of Singapore’s train service to London’s.
“People make a fuss about minor discomfort nowadays. If they go back to the past or travel to other countries, they will know how good everything here is.”
“Back in my time in the 60s, travelling from one place to another was a luxury. I feel so contented with what we have today.”
The BPLRT line uses a two-car train system and has a narrow station platform. There are half-height safety barriers along the train track, and none on the outside of the travel rails.
TISG took the rear train from Choa Chu Kang at 9.08am and reached Bukit Panjang within six minutes. We stayed on to take the loop service back to Choa Chua Kang and reached the terminal at at 9.40am, ending the 32-minute journey.
The ride was reasonably efficient and comfortable in the normal seats. A seat was also located at each rear end of the carriage. Due to the lack of handrails in that area, the ride was naturally unstable.
Air conditioning and ventilation felt clean and fresh – but we later discovered that this was because we were riding a newer model of the train, which first started its service in 2014.
Over at the 10.7km SKLRT line, there are two platforms running east and west loops. The only difference between the platforms is the opposing directions that the trains travel in.
The station itself is spacious and comparable to an average MRT station. Unlike the BPLRT, Sengkang only operates two-car trains during peak hours – so we boarded a single-car train.
TISG took the east loop from platform two at 12.24pm and made it back to Sengkang within 14 minutes. We then took the west loop from the same platform at 12.45pm and made it back to the terminal within 16 minutes.
The ride on the train felt comfortable and steady. This time round, there were also barriers on the outside of the travel rails.
However, the only two LRT service maps were located at each rear end, making it difficult for commuters to examine them and locate their routes.
Fortunately, SKLRT has an electronic announcement system to notify commuters of their location to make up for the lack of visual guide.
All in all, both the LRT systems do offer a decent service for commuters – but that’s only if you take it on a good day.