Things I learnt about the Singapore MRT (and a comparison with Melbourne)

See also: my other posts from Singapore

This post pulls together some things I saw on my on my holiday, together with information gleaned from a briefing with the Singapore Land Transport Authority (organised by chance courtesy of the Victorian Government when some of their people discovered they’d be in Singapore at the same time I was), together with information trawled off the web.

MRT and Metro

Singapore: MRT stands for Mass Rapid Transit. It’s Singapore’s train network, which started service in the 1980s, which is why everything seems so new. Surprisingly however, they do have wooden sleepers on some parts of the network, which are steadily being replaced with concrete, and other upgrades are underway.

Melbourne: Metro is a brand name owned by the Victorian Government. The network we have now dates back to 1854, and has gradually been extended and updated, though there’s an awful lot of very old equipment.

Singapore MRT vs Melbourne Metro

Network

Singapore: Five lines, with more under construction, all completely independently run. All double track all the way. Consistent train lengths on each line – not all long trains, either – the Downtown line runs 3-car trains, but frequently. (For this article, I’m not counting the LRT – Light Rail Transit, which is a feeder to the MRT. I didn’t look at this during my visit.)

Melbourne: Fifteen lines including branches. (Sixteen if you count the part time Flemington line, seventeen if you count the V/Line metropolitan line to Wyndham Vale). Lots of junctions, shared track, single track, intertwined drivers, services, fleets and other resources. Mostly consistent train lengths these days, since the ridiculous practice of running half-length trains on weekends and evenings was removed. The PTV Network Development Plan is geared at separating out the various lines, though progress is very slow.

Singapore: System length 171 km, with 101 stations (according to Wikipedia). Many interchanges between lines. A mix of radial “compass” (east-west, north-south, etc) lines and other connections. No central terminus.

Melbourne: System length 372 km, with 207 stations (Wikipedia) – so the overall station spacing is similar, though it probably varies more widely. Limited interchange between lines. All lines are radial. Central terminus station (Flinders Street) where everything stops and waits, and no timetabled through-routing can be guaranteed.

Singapore is catching up to us. They plan to get to 360 km of routes by 2030, and at the rate they’re building, it looks like they’ll get there.

Singapore: Jalan Besar station under construction

Singapore: Lines have names, colours and initials on the map, and stations have numbers (as well as names) along each line, making navigation easy. Plus every train stops at every station (though in some cases trains do terminate before the end of the line).

Melbourne: The current map has colours for zones that mostly no longer matter. Lines have names which are confusing thanks to branches, and stations have names only. Stopping patterns on some lines vary wildly (just look at the Ringwood line during PM peak; a real mess). There has been a new, much better map in the works for some years.

Singapore MRT: SMRT status screen

Operators

Singapore: The various lines are run by different private operators: SMRT and SBS Transit (a subsidiary of ComfortDelGro, which runs some buses and taxis in Melbourne). The government says having two operators is to foster competition. This seems to work okay given the lines are completely independent.

However there is (I’m assuming mandated by the government) a high level of integration, including fares, with some stations providing paid area interchange between different operators’ lines. And you’d barely notice that there are two operators, let alone that they are private — the facilities and most of the signage seem to be identical. (One exception that seems to have snuck through is the SMRT status screen shown above.)

Both operators (or related companies) also run bus routes, LRT lines and taxis. I’m told it’s possible the MRT will be nationalised in the future, but for now the private operators continue.

Melbourne: One private operator: Metro Trains Melbourne. This is probably for the best given the intertwined nature of the system (having two companies didn’t work well), though the Five Group Railway plan ultimately seeks to completely separate the various lines.

Singapore MRT: Little India station

Singapore: The government’s Land Transport Authority builds the lines and pays for them. The operators run the lines, and are expected not get any subsidy – just fare revenue.

Melbourne: The government’s various authorities build the lines and pay for them. There’s a very messy franchise agreement which I suspect nobody outside government really truly understands (even if you can get to read it; it’s currently not available online), whereby MTM gets paid.

The city

Singapore: Wikipedia says the metropolitan population is about 5.5 million over just 719 square kilometres. Density 7697 people per square Km. The density has to be seen to be believed. Imagine the dense areas of South Yarra, across much of the metropolitan area.

Plus cars are constrained through limited registration and road pricing. Obviously this all means mass transit and high frequency services are a lot more viable, and it really shows.

Singapore’s Land Transit Authority reckons current public transport mode share is about 60% of trips. They’re aiming to increase this to 75% by 2030!

Melbourne: Serves a metropolitan population of about 4.5 million over 9990 square kilometres; density 453 people per square Km, about a twentieth of Singapore 3.7 million people over 2543 square kilometres; density 1450 people per square Km. The densest parts of inner-suburban Melbourne rival “suburban” Singapore, but outside about 5km from the CBD, we’ve really got nothing to compare.

Services

Singapore: Frequent service all day, every day. Peak frequency is around 2-3 minutes. I never waited more than 5 minutes for a train, even fairly late at night, though the official page says frequency may be as low as 7 minutes. As noted, the high metropolitan density helps makes this viable.

Melbourne: Every 3-20 minutes at peak, every 10-20 minutes off-peak, 20-30 minutes evenings. We may not have the density nor the operational line separation to support 5 minute services all day, but given suburban traffic congestion, we can at least get to 10 minutes all day every day, which would make the system a lot more usable than it is now.

Singapore: Last trains around midnight. No all-night services on weekends.

Melbourne: Last trains around midnight, but hourly trains on Friday and Saturday nights.

Fares and ticketing

Singapore: Fares are per kilometre. They seemed really cheap to me (bearing in mind the Singapore dollar is worth about the same as the Australian dollar). But no season passes/periodicals – they used to have them, but phased them out.

Melbourne: Basically one flat fare zone. Both systems obviously have their pros and cons, but this makes short distances relatively expensive, and heavily subsidises long distance trips. Option of Pay As You Go (Myki Money) or Pass.

Singapore MRT: General Ticket Machine

Singapore: Re-usable EZ-Link card, like Myki but faster. Not perfect though; for instance the app for checking the balance won’t work without a local mobile phone number. Ticket machines at every railway station, some bus stops and interchanges. The machine I used didn’t seem to spit out unwanted receipts.

Retailer, Online topup (note how they explain actually getting the funds onto your smartcard) and Auto Load options. Refundable “standard ticket” option.

Melbourne: Myki, kind of like the rest of the world’s PT smartcards, but slower. (Finally this is improving with the new readers.)

The trains

Singapore: Acceleration and speed on all the trains seems quite good. The East-West line covers 49km and 35 stations in 70 minutes (eg average speed 42 Km/h), with a maximum speed of 80 Km/h. It probably helps that they don’t have to stick to a public timetable.

Melbourne: Acceleration and speed is mixed, with varying types of trains on most lines resulting in a lowest-common-denominator timetable, with lots of padding. The Frankston line covers 43 Km and 27 stations in 73 minutes (eg average speed of 36 Km/h). Maximum speed generally 80 Km/h, but reaching a max of 95 south of Mordialloc.

Singapore: Interior of Downtown line train

Singapore: Lots of doors and lots of standing space on the trains, hardly any seats. Lots of places to hold on.

Melbourne: Previously designed to maximise seats, this has been curbed recently, allowing more standees and greater capacity, but most models of train still have too few places to hold on. The new model trains will change this.

Singapore: Bayfront MRT station, showing platform screen doors

The stations

Singapore: Every station that I saw had platform screen doors, made possible by all stations being underground or having full-length platform shelter; consistent train fleets; automatic train operation (some lines with drivers, some without) to stop consistently in the right place. This in turn makes possible markings on platforms showing people where to stand, which cuts dwell times.

One interesting side-effect of the full height platform screen doors in the underground stations: you don’t really see the trains or the track. The trains arrive behind the partially-covered glass and the doors just open. It feels more like a giant horizontal elevator than a train.

At aboveground stations the doors are half-height; you can see over them, but couldn’t easily climb over them. (See the video above, which shows how they work.)

Melbourne: No platform screen doors yet. The first will be on the new underground stations on the metro rail tunnel, which will run only specific train types. No suburban stations have full-length platform shelters, but having seen them in action, it emphasises to me that the rebuilt Dandenong line stations should have full-length platform shelters to help facilitate them in the future.

Singapore MRT: Redhill station

Singapore: Every station appeared to be staffed, with fare gates. Platform despatch staff were spotted at busy stations at peak times. No visible security or ticket inspector presence that I saw, but this may reflect the overall law-abiding nature of the country.

Melbourne: About every third station is a “Premium” fully staffed station. Fewer have fare gates, though the policy now (which is coming into play with the grade separations) is to install fare gates at newly built Premium stations. Some platform despatch staff at busy stations at peak times. Authorised Officers (ticket inspectors) roam the system, and Armed PSOs are at most stations after 6pm.

Singapore MRT: Redhill station

The tracks

Singapore: No level crossings. All lines that I saw are underground or elevated.

Melbourne: Lots of level crossings, and it’s only in the last few years that there’s been a serious effort to start getting rid of them.

Singapore: Powered by 750 volt DC third rail, except the North-East Line which is 1500 volt. So much for the theory that all modern systems run 22,000 volt AC.

Melbourne: Overhead wire 1500 volts. The metro rail tunnel and Sunbury to Dandenong line will introduce 3000 volt power.

Singapore: Redhill MRT station and bus stop

Connections

Singapore: There doesn’t appear to be any timetable co-ordination with buses (arguably pointless when trains run so frequently). Bus many stations have bus connections, and these are well signposted, with some major interchanges having extensive bus parking and passenger waiting areas. Many bus routes aren’t spectacularly frequent, with services “every 13-19 minutes” being fairly common. That’s still better than most Melbourne routes though.

Melbourne: Some attempts at timetable co-ordination. Connections are generally well signposted, but at some locations little thought has been given to getting the buses to stop close to the station exits. Most routes every 30-60 minutes, only a few are more frequent.

Singapore: Tanah Merah station, interchange for Changi Airport

Singapore: Lots of interchange stations. Between lines, this usually involves lengthy connecting corridors. How lengthy? Think Platform 1 to Platform 13 at Flinders Street. Notably for the Changi Airport branch line, there is cross-platform interchange in both directions, but not with timed connections… but it doesn’t matter thanks to the high frequencies.

Melbourne: The structure of the network doesn’t really lend itself to interchanges, yet, though some exist for the branch lines (eg Alamein, Altona Loop) as well as between Direct and City Loop trains (North Melbourne, Richmond). The infrastructure could be improved in this respect; even at recently rebuilt stations like Footscray, it often requires exiting the paid area to change trains.

Singapore MRT: bicycle parking

Bikes

Singapore: Only folding bikes are allowed on the trains outside peak times. Bike parking is provided at some stations, and some of it puts ours to shame – see photo.

Melbourne: Bicycles permitted on trains (but discouraged in peak hours). Parkiteer bike cages at some stations, but there are some huge gaps in the network, for instance on most lines there are almost no cages in zone 1.

Singapore MRT: Foldable bicycle dimensions

Wheelchairs

Singapore: Platform and carriage door heights are closely aligned, so wheelchairs, prams and wheeled luggage can be easily wheeled aboard without help or ramps.

Melbourne: Most platforms have a considerable gap. Harrington Humps have been installed at some stations, but most of the time the driver has to deploy a portable ramp, slowing down operations.

Singapore: MRT station toilet cleaning schedule

Cleanliness

Singapore: Trains and stations spotlessly clean. It took me a week to spot any litter. This is no doubt reflective of Singapore society as a whole, which has a reputation for being very law abiding (though I saw a fair bit of jaywalking.)

Melbourne: Trains and stations often littered and tagged. Some efforts have been made to keep them clean, but it’s an ongoing challenge. Siemens trains in particular are notorious for dirtiness.

Shutdowns

Singapore: Almost no planned disruptions to train services. All works are carried out at night. The only concession to this is earlier closures and later Sunday morning starts. On the Thomson East Coast Line under construction, I was told interchange tunnels would be built under tracks up into the centre of the existing Orchard Station platforms, all without interrupting train services.

Melbourne: My station is closed for 3 months to remove the level crossing, and the trains will be interrupted for five weeks straight. Nuff said?

Singapore MRT: early closure/late start for works

Singapore: Sign showing LRT disruption

Singapore: Unplanned interruptions to service seem to be rare, but not unknown. One night I saw signs indicating an LRT disruption, and it made the papers the next day.

Melbourne: Melbourne, sadly, is notorious for delays and cancellations.

Singapore MRT: Exam notice

Politics

Singapore: I don’t know if there are any organised user groups, but I’m told the political pressure is immense to keep improving the system. Crowding can be severe at peak times.

Melbourne: Lots of political pressure, such that during the last state election the debate was around which rail tunnel to build. Crowding can be severe at peak times on some lines. Active user group that really needs your membership.

Singapore MRT: Queue for fare gates at VivoCity/Harbourfront station

Can we get there from here?

Can we learn from cities like Singapore? Can we improve Melbourne’s rail system to be more like Singapore’s? You bet. Reliability in particular can be improved, but so can frequency.

There’s a limit — Singapore-style density is unlikely in many Melbourne suburbs in the forseeable future. And we may not want trains with virtually no seats, given long trip distances.

But we can do a lot more to grade separate level crossings, operationally separate rail lines for efficiency, improve interchange facilities, improve train designs and efficiency… and the clincher, the most important aspect for a more usable system: run more frequent trains at all times.

As I’ve said many times, ten minute services are possible on most of the rail network with the track infrastructure and fleet we already have. There are impacts for driver numbers and maintenance capacity, but the government should push ahead with it.

Signs blocking bike lanes and footpaths

This is not the first time I’ve spotted something like this: real estate agent signs blocking bike lanes.

I’m not sure why anybody who thought about it for more than a second would think it was a good idea to leave signs there. Cyclists would either be forced out into traffic, or if they didn’t notice the signs, collide with them.

In this case, I decided to move the signs out of the way. They were still quite visible to passing motorists — along with a plethora of other signage nearby.

Granted the bike lane isn’t very wide at this point anyway, but whether the cyclist uses the lane or takes the traffic lane should be up to them.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. From my observations, this particular location (Neerim Road, Glenhuntly) has been problematic for some weeks.

Real estate agents are also notorious for blocking footpaths. The photo below was snapped just after a lady with a mobility aid struggled to pass this giant flag.

Real estate agent flag across footpath

Some agents have been fined for this.

It’s a similar issue to the illegal parking of vehicles over footpaths. While able-bodied people can walk around, those with prams and mobility aids often can’t. They might be forced onto damp or difficult-to-navigate nature strips, or even out onto the road.

Real estate agents obviously need to promote their properties, and make sure that people can find them. But they need to find a way that doesn’t involve blocking bike lanes and footpaths.

After I approached Hodges last year about the footpath instance pictured above, they said they were looking into ways of preventing that in the future, which is good to know. For instance smaller flags above the footpath users might work well.

So far, Castran Gilbert have been silent, but I hope they’re reviewing their practices.

Update 5pm: They have now responded. It’ll be interesting to see what action they take, and whether the issue continues.

Fare evasion changes

Public transport fines are changing. Today the Victorian Ombudsman released a damning report into the fare evasion regime; so did the Government Department Of Everything.

And importantly, the Government announced numerous changes including the scrapping of Penalty Fares; better training, equipment and discretion for Authorised Officers; upgrades to Myki to improve online top-up times, and make readers easier to use.

It’ll take effect in January. Some people have asked why so long… I suspect the answer is that when you’re talking about changing equipment and procedures across a large department and hundreds of people, it just takes a while.

Myki billboard advertising, February 2014

Anyway, rather than repeat myself, I’ll just point you to this opinion piece in The Age: Myki changes are good news, but unexplained oddities will remain

TL;DR: It’s a big step forward. Penalty Fares were problematic; getting rid of them makes sense, as does improving AO operations and some (but not all, alas) aspects of the Myki system.

Burke Road level crossing: train punctuality improving, but no visible benefits for trams yet

After about a year of construction, the Burke Road (Gardiner) level crossing was finally removed in January. One of four train/tram crossings (tram squares), it had long caused delays to both, as well as pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles.

I went and had a look a month or two back. The design isn’t outstanding. In particular the train/tram interchange is stuffed — they’ve managed to engineer it so that you have to cross two sets of lights to get between them. You could easily see your tram depart while waiting to cross from the station.

Here you can see the station exit on the left, and the tram stop on the right.
Gardiner station and nearby tram stop, March 2016

This means that for changing between trams and citybound trains, it’s actually worse now than it was before.

This sort of stuff shouldn’t be hard. The Brits, who we often seek to emulate, can manage it. I recall seeing the new “TramLink” light rail system at East Croydon station (circa 1999) in south London — they’d engineered it so the tram stops are right outside the station.

Given the Burke Road tram comes around the corner at Malvern Road, it shouldn’t have been difficult to run the tram along the western side of the road as far as the station, but instead the tram is in the middle of Burke Road — separated from you by the traffic. At the very least the tram stop should be directly adjacent the station so there’s only one road to cross.

Very disappointing, but unfortunately hardly surprising — even outside our biggest stations such as Southern Cross, the trams are multiple lanes of traffic away from the concourse.

Snooping around the station I was also struck by the lack of shade on the outbound platform while I was there. Hopefully in the morning on the citybound platform (when people are more likely to be waiting) it’s a little better.
Gardiner station, March 2016

The adjacent trench for the trains was already tagged.
Train trench near Gardiner station

One bit of good news; when I was there, the platform Passenger Information Displays were the typical suburban two-line LED jobs, but the display on the concourse shows the next two departures in each direction. If they can just get similar information onto the platforms so you know when it’s worth waiting for the next train rather that squeezing onto the one that’s arrived first.
Gardiner station concourse, March 2016

Effects of grade separation

Anyway, to the point of this post: I’m hearing on the grapevine that motor traffic has already increased by 20% (3000 cars per day) since grade separation.

But has it helped the trains and trams? They both used to crawl across there, and trams would get held up whenever trains were approaching.

Taking a look at Track Record punctuality figures, what do we see?

Gardiner: tram 72 and Glen Waverley line punctuality

There’s a slight trend upwards on the trains, at both peak times and across the day. That might reflect the higher speeds they can achieve without the tram square speed limit, which can be as low as 10 kmh.

On the trams, there’s surprisingly little difference.

(I’ve excluded the tram figure for January itself; at 86.7%, almost 10% higher than December, it’s clearly an outlier, probably due to quiet holiday road traffic along the route and altered operations while the crossing work was happening.)

Perhaps the increased traffic, and/or adjustments made to nearby traffic lights, means any gains for the trams haven’t materialised?

There are no doubt some lessons here in terms of better interchange, better on-road priority for trams and buses to weigh against the huge benefits to motorists, and some level of control (such as plenty of responsive pedestrian crossings, especially in busy shopping centres) so that grade separated roads don’t become high speed traffic sewers.

As we know, level crossing removals benefit pedestrians and public transport users, as well as motorists, cyclists and emergency vehicles. But at Burke Road, it appears the benefits for tram users aren’t obvious just yet.

  • Footnote: the graph was done in Google Docs. I’m amazed it can do it at all — quite impressive — but it’s certainly not as customisable as graphs in Excel.

Station plans: the new Ormond/Mckinnon/Bentleigh

I haven’t seen the detailed station plans for Ormond/Mckinnon/Bentleigh (aka the North-Mckinnon-Centre grade separations) online anywhere, but they are on display at the semi-regular public sessions.

Here’s how they look, with some notes from me.

Any misinterpretations of the plans are my mistake. In all three diagrams, north (to the city) is to the left. Click on any of the diagrams to view them larger.

Ormond

Ormond station plan

Worth noting:

  • This station is a Host (staffed in the AM peak) station, and is designed for future upgrade to Premium status.
  • Entrances on both sides of North Road, accommodated on the southern side by making the Cadby Avenue intersection one way (exit only).
  • Lifts and stairs, but no ramps. With two lifts to each platform, this is probably considered enough to ensure a DDA-accessible entrance/exit is always available, even if one lift is out of service.
  • Hopefully the layout of the main stairs doesn’t encourage people who don’t need it to use the lift.
  • I can’t actually see stairs on the southern side of platform 3, but platform 3 is barely used under normal circumstances anyway.
  • Eastbound bus stops move to right outside the station. Westbound stops stay in the current location.
  • Taxi spots on both sides of the road. Kiss And Ride spots (eg for dropping off/picking up people by car) on the southern side.
  • Pedestrian crossing is slightly east of the station entrance, aligned to the Shared User Path (SUP, aka bike and pedestrian path).
  • Bike cage on the eastern side.
  • Looks like three public toilets, plus a staff toilet.
  • Note the rooms marked “PSO” (Protective Services Officer) and “HOLD” (presumably the holding cell for PSOs to use). All three stations have these, though they are not explicitly marked on the other diagrams.

Mckinnon

Mckinnon Station plan

  • Lifts, stairs and ramps — which are nice and long due to DDA-compliance, which limits the maximum gradients, and requires level rest areas, but a failsafe against lift failure, which has been a problem at other stations such as Laverton and Epping.
  • Retail space included in the building. Wouldn’t surprise me if this is designed so that if necessary it can be converted into future additional station office space.
  • Bike cage on eastern side.
  • Pedestrian crossing outside the station entrance.
  • Not in view here, but the bus stops are in the same place as at present, just east of the station.

Bentleigh

Bentleigh station plan

  • This is the only Premium station of the three.
  • Lifts, stairs and ramps. The lifts are tucked slightly out of the way so hopefully only those who need them will use them.
  • Myki gate line, and it looks like they’ve gone for the sensible design of making the bypass gate right next to the ticket office, so it can be worked from inside, so the gates can be kept closed without the extra cost of dedicated gate staff. This is used at the northern end of Parliament station at present, and is common on some overseas systems.
  • Looks like there are two individual public toilets.
  • Not specifically marked in, but the station building includes PSO facilities, of course.
  • Bike cage in the old location, accessed via Nicholson Street.
  • Both bus stops (for route 703) are just east of the station. The eastbound stop is pretty much in the same location as at present, but I suspect the westbound stop with amalgamate the two existing stops — one just west of the station (converted to Kiss And Ride), and another about 200 metres further east. Both are problematic at present due to the lack of a pedestrian crossing.
  • Apparently at Bentleigh and Mckinnon, the new platforms will be below the water table, so the whole structure will be in a concrete trench, and the platforms will also be solid concrete to keep the whole structure weighed down, so it doesn’t float up!

Here’s what the Myki gate line looks like at Parliament (north end).
Parliament station (north end) Myki gates and bypass gate

For Bentleigh station users, note that from today, access to platform 1 (Citybound) is via Nicholson Street. The station itself closes at the end of next week to be demolished, but the rail line will be open for another three weeks after that before closing on 24th June for the major works period of 37 days.

Mckinnon, the least complex of the three stations, will re-open first (though not in a completed state) on 1st August when the line re-opens. Bentleigh and Ormond will re-open at the end of August. The third track will re-open in September.