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Transport ministers reveal problematic BPLRT was really an “afterthought,” constructed due to “political pressure”

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Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan and Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng have revealed that the problematic Bukit Panjang LRT (BPLRT) line was constructed due to political pressure.

Construction on the BPLRT began in 1996, with the 1997 General Election looming ahead. The ruling People’s Action Party had only garnered 61 per cent of the popular vote in the last GE in 1991 and began building the LRT in Bukit Panjang at this time and had promised Bukit Panjang residents it would explore alternative means to meet their needs concerning ease of travel.

The next year, the PAP won a clear majority in parliament, claiming 77 out of 81 seats in Parliament. Two years after that, in 1999, the BPLRT was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan who went on to become the President. $285 million was spent to construct the line.

According to the Straits Times, the BPLRT service broke down about 50 times in only four years, between 1999 and 2003. By 2012, about 150 breakdowns had occurred on the line, inconveniencing countless passengers:

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“Between 1999 and 2003, the service broke down about 50 times. One breakdown even lasted for five days. The system suffered from power failure, problems with the trains’ brakes and problems with the train system’s design and maintenance, including poor supervision. By 2012, it had suffered about 150 breakdowns.”

Khaw Boon Wan revealed a few weeks ago that the line was constructed as an “afterthought,” under “political pressure,” admitting that he did not enjoy commuting on the line that has been built in a “masochistic way”:

“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.”

Ng Chee Meng clarified Khaw’s comments in Parliament yesterday, when he revealed that the line was constructed even though the LRT design was not suited to the terrain of Bukit Panjang:

“In the 1990s, LTA was exploring a pilot network to bridge the last-mile gap from the MRT system and ease vehicle congestion within housing estates where population growth had stretched the road capacity. Bukit Panjang was identified in 1994 for the pilot, even though it was planned and built without LRT in mind.”

When pressed by Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh to clarify Khaw’s “political pressure” comment, Ng said:

“The primary issue with the BPLRT is that the design was adapted from an airport system to a housing estate… It was a ‘straight-line’ design which had to be adapted to undulating terrain and sharp turns.”

Such sharp turns frequently leads to breakdowns caused by power trips as the train traverses sharp bends.

Ng also revealed in Parliament yesterday that the government now plans to completely overhaul the BPLRT system. Telling Bukit Panjang commuters to brace for disruptions and shorter operating hours, Ng added the contract to overhaul the system will be awarded in the first quarter of 2018:

“In the immediate term, LTA and SMRT are carrying out detailed checks of the LRT’s power rails and performing hotspot replacement works where needed… 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.”

Ng added LTA and SMRT are apparently planning to extend engineering hours to facilitate additional works. SMRT is also apparently forming a “quick response team” to rectify train faults and shorten service recovery times.

More bus services will also be deployed from the new Bukit Panjang Integrated Transport Hub. However, Ng warned that since Bukit Panjang is a “relatively mature estate,” there are “limits on the number of buses that can be put on the roads without causing further congestion.”

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