Go with a smile!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I live near the oldest MRT station in Singapore. (5 of them opened on the first day.) I still remember the booklet that they issued, and it showed parts of Singapore – some of which I had been to, and many of which I had never seen. I was almost as big a transportation system geek as Shingot, but not quite. I was thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to be a transportation planner when I grow up? Well guess again, sucker!!!

Seeing a huge construction site, and seeing huge swaths of roads being diverted made a great impression on me. It seemed as though the construction work would never end. I used to go to Plaza Singapura for music lessons, and it seemed forever, waiting for the Dhoby Ghaut station to be built. When it opened, it was quite a small station. (Never imagined that one day 3 MRT lines would be passing through it.) There was an underpass that was built, that would take you under Orchard Road to a car park between Plaza Singapura and MacDonald House. Today, that car park is The Atrium.

I used to live in Bukit Timah during those days. It was strange, when you went down 1 road, and there was Newton Station. Then you went down another road, and you ended up at Buona Vista. I thought that the geography of Singapore was rather warped. I was wondering why Orchard and Tiong Bahru stations were 6 or 7 stops away, when they were so close by bus.

Anyway, from Bukit Timah, the MRT was not much use to us. In the first few years, I hardly took the MRT, except for fun. Similar to my waiting for the Dhoby Ghaut station to open, I started wondering when Bukit Timah would have a proper MRT system. Now I know the answer: when I’m about 40 years old. I suppose one day I will know what it’s like to have waited for something for 30 years.

I remember us first going to take the MRT. I thought it was going to be seedy and dark, but it wasn’t. I thought it was going to be a strange cavern of underground tunnels, like the underpasses of Singapore River bridges, but the tunnels were reasonably short. The Toa Payoh station exit was housed in a building, which also had Toa Payoh’s first air-conditioned hawker centre. (It’s demolished now,

The ticket gates were new, so they opened and closed with a rather alarming vigour. I thought that some poor guy was going to get his hips crushed one day and sent to hospital.

So there was the MRT system, in a microcosm. The first stretch of 5 lines had underground stations and overhead stations. The underground tunnels were noisy. It didn’t feel that fast even when it was travelling at 80 km/h.

Not long after that, the MRT line was extended to Outram station, and half a year later, all the way to Clementi. Since the 2 central stations did not serve multiple lines, the train just went Dhoby Ghaut – City Hall – Raffles Place – Tanjong Pagar.

The second big phase of the MRT was the opening of the East stations. The East-West Line was opened. It was the longest line at that point. The stretch from Clementi was extended to Boon Lay, and the eastern stations were opened from City Hall to Pasir Ris. At the same time, a line extended from Raffles Place to Marina Bay. From Jurong East, there was a small branch upwards towards Chua Chu Kang. At that time I thought that was quaint, little knowing what lay in the future.

There were a few stations where people just didn’t know why they were there. Some of the more ulu stations were Novena, Newton, Buona Vista and Marina Bay. For most of these stations, urban activity has sprouted around them, but I still don’t know what Marina Bay is for, considering that you had to construct a special tunnel under the Singapore River to have it built.

I liked the old numbering system for the MRT stations. Raffles Place was C1. City Hall was C2. All the other stations are numbered outwards from there. I used to learn the names of MRT stations that way, and I’m still able to draw a map of the original 42 stations from memory.

In the mid 90s, however, they changed the numbering system when they opened the section between Yishun and Chua Chu Kang. Then it became confusing for me. I don’t know how many of you know that Junction 8 was named because Bishan’s number was North 8. Anyway, they had to renumber the east-west line because they were building a Dover station between Buona Vista (W7) and Clementi (W8). So were they going to call it W7.5? In any case, I never bothered to remember the new numbers.

I thought it was a little strange that the MRT stations would lie in a circle. Until I saw a map: Singapore is really shaped like a donut, and in that hole are our central reservoirs, which should never ever be converted into urban areas.

While there were other new stations in the meantime, like the new Dover station, and the Changi Airport extension, the one we looked forward to was the Northeast Line. So Dhoby Ghaut became an interchange. This line was a little strange because all the stations were underground, even the ones furthest away from the city centre. I could understand it being underground all the way to Hougang, but I didn’t know why they built underground stations for Sengkang and Punggol. I always thought that overhead stations were cheaper and easier to build.

The MRT had always been considered a comfortable ride most of the time. However, around this time, they decided to cut back on the frequency of trains, and at the same time the population of Singapore was increasingly rapidly due to lots of immigration. It was around this time when the MRT started to resemble the Nazi concentration camp rail system.

By this time, most of the major lines were built. The west line was extended by 2 stations, and I wished it was 10 years earlier when we had to charter buses to ferry us from military camps in Jurong to Ang Mo Kio.

However all the lines were like minimum spanning trees, and not well interlinked. For example, the MRT took a very long way between Ang Mo Kio and Buona Vista stations. The route actually took a shorter time by bus than by train because the train diverted you through the city centre.

Last year, finally the Circle line opened. First, the section joining Bishan to Serangoon, which means that it was much easier for me to get to the Northeast Line. And last week, the section all the way to Dhoby Ghaut. Which makes Dhoby Ghaut the first station to have 3 lines. It was the first “minor” line, where the trains only had 3 cars each. I suppose it was cheaper to build them that way. For some strange reason it doesn’t seem to have a high ridership. Hopefully that will change (but not to the extent that I lose my seat when I have to use the circle line.)

I was hoping that the circle line would ease the congestion on the North line. But knowing SMRT, they would most probably just cut back on the frequency of trains to compensate, thus making the MRT as congested as it ever was.

One interesting thing about the circle line is how they changed Bishan station into a semi-underground station to accommodate the circle line. They used to have 2 tracks facing each other on the island platform, but not anymore. This was brought home to me when I decided to make a U turn on the north line. I was travelling north and had just left Toa Payoh station. I wanted to go back down south. Braddell was a special station with side platforms; I was lazy to use the stairs to cross to the opposite side, so I passed it by. Then at Bishan, it also had side platforms, effectively, since they built a new platform for one of the lines. And at Ang Mo Kio, the north and south platforms was separated by the unused track in the middle. (I think they were preparing for the circle line to cross Ang Mo Kio but it never happened). So I ended up crossing the platform at Yio Chu Kang station! I think this sequence of MRT stations is the only place where there are 3 consecutive stations without island platforms.

The future? They’re building new lines. The Downtown lines to the east and west. They’re talking about extending the MRT to Pulau Ubin. We’ll see if it happens. More plausible are the plans to extend the line to the 2 checkpoints at Woodlands and Tuas, so that you can literally take a train to Johor Bahru, which is fast becoming an extension of Singapore.


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