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Changi needs a direct rail link

A direct train link between the city and Changi Airport is a must: no two ways about it.

The need is especially urgent with plans afoot to erect the airport's biggest passenger facility, Terminal 5. Changi's biggest expansion to date will eventually double the airport's current capacity.

Last Thursday, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the Government is studying the feasibility of extending the future Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL) to the airport. Under current plans for the 43km line which will open in phases from 2019 to 2024, the last eastern stop is Sungei Bedok. If the extension is done, the line will link to the future T5 and, from there, to the existing Changi Airport MRT station which sits between T2 and T3.

Studies will also look into linking the proposed 50km Cross-Island Line (CRL) to T5 and the new industrial zone serving the airport, Mr Khaw said. The CRL will complement the future high-speed rail (HSR) link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, as it will be linked to the HSR's Jurong East terminus.

The absence of a direct train service to Changi is a bugbear for travellers who now have to get off at Tanah Merah MRT and transfer to a shuttle train which does a loop to the airport and back.

That was not always the case. In February 2002, when the MRT station at Changi Airport opened, commuters could go directly from Boon Lay station to the airport. But less than a year and a half later, SMRT pulled the plug on the convenient link, citing low ridership.

With a loop service, the operator needed only three instead of 11 trains a day to serve the two stations along the airport line - Expo and Changi. This put $2 million in annual savings into SMRT's pocket. But much has changed in 13 years.

From 30.35 million passengers in 2004, Changi Airport handled 55.4 million last year - a more than 80 per cent jump. By the time T4 opens next year and T5 is ready, the airport will be able to handle up to 135 million passengers a year, up from 66 million now. With T5 coming up in Changi East - a plot of reclaimed land about 1.6km away from the current airport premises - ensuring convenient access to and from the airport and between the terminals will be key.

The plan for Changi East is more than just building T5. It includes other facilities like an aircraft repair and maintenance hub, offices and hotels. There will also be a ground transport centre that should ideally integrate bus, train and taxi services.

A good public transport network will be essential to move not just a growing number of travellers but airport workers as well. Relying on just buses and taxis will not do. Even today, travellers complain about long, winding taxi queues when human traffic builds up, especially on weekend evenings.

If there was a more convenient MRT alternative, more people would perhaps be inclined to hop onto the trains.

With competition intensifying against other Asian and Middle Eastern airport hubs, Changi has to pull out all the stops to ensure that travellers and visitors get the best possible experience here. To some extent, it is already lagging behind rivals in this department. Many other Asian airports, including those in Bangkok, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and South Korea, provide a rail option - in some cases an express service - for travellers and visitors. While some may argue that the need is less critical in Singapore given the proximity of the airport to the city, it is still a convenience that travellers have come to expect at major airport hubs.

When plans for the future T4 were unveiled, for example, there was some disappointment that the airport's internal Skytrain network would not be extended to the new terminal. Changi Airport said that shuttle buses would be provided instead, citing site constraints.

When T5 and the entire Changi East project are completed, travellers who have come to expect nothing but the best from Changi will demand a first-class transportation network with rail and vehicular options. There is a strong case for both the Thomson-East Coast Line and Cross-Island Line to be linked to Changi Airport. While the former would operate as a regular train service, the Cross-Island Line which will be linked to the Singapore-Malaysia HSR system could serve a more strategic purpose. An express service from Jurong East to Changi Airport with just one or two stops in between would be an attractive option that could entice residents in south Malaysia to fly out of Singapore instead of Kuala Lumpur.

Commuters at the Changi Airport MRT station. A direct MRT link to Changi Airport would be more convenient for travellers, who currently have to transfer to a shuttle train at Tanah Merah MRT station.
Commuters at the Changi Airport MRT station. A direct MRT link to Changi Airport would be more convenient for travellers, who currently have to transfer to a shuttle train at Tanah Merah MRT station. ST FILE PHOTO

The real question for the Transport Ministry, which is in the midst of its feasibility studies, is not whether the lines should be extended. It is whether one or both should be linked to Changi Airport.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Changi needs a direct rail link'. Print Edition | Subscribe