SINGAPORE - Spikes in the volume of travellers during the holiday period, tight security measures in the face of terrorist threats and unpredictable traffic situations are some of the challenges to speedy clearance for travellers at the Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints.
At a media briefing on Monday (Dec 21) at the Woodlands Checkpoint, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officials explained the Causeway traffic jams that led to congested pedestrian lanes on Dec 17, when hundreds of commuters from Malaysia tried to cross on foot.
Bus drivers stuck in traffic opened doors for commuters to spill onto the roads, adding to the congestion, as there is no proper footpath for them on the Malaysian side of the Causeway, said AC Alan Koo Weng Yew, Commander (Woodlands) Integrated Checkpoints Command (Land).
He also pointed to arriving motorcyclists as a source of congestion. There are four vehicle lanes on the Malaysian side of the Causeway but only three on the Singapore side, leading to a "ballooning" of traffic.
Some motorcyclists used car, lorry and bus lanes after clearing Malaysian immigration and tried to cut back into the motorcycle lanes at the Woodlands Checkpoint. Lane discipline on the Malaysian side of the Causeway cannot be enforced by the ICA.
However, the ICA said that one way they manage traffic is through cross deployment of staff to areas where resources are needed most.
"If, for example, we see that motorcycle traffic is building up very fast, we will convert a car zone to accommodate the higher demand of motorcycle traffic," said AC Koo.
An estimated 430,000 travellers cross the checkpoints daily during the year-end school and festive holiday period, compared to an estimated 400,000 during non-peak periods.
About 100 ICA officers have been working overtime this holiday season to deal with the increased volume of traffic, said the ICA.
Manpower is planned months in advance of the holiday season, but the traffic situation is volatile, with unpredictable spikes throughout the day, it said.
One tax on its resources has been the higher number of travellers who have tried to cross the checkpoints into Singapore with wrong, invalid or missing travel documents.
There were 3,500 cases between January and October this year, up from an estimated 3,400 last year.
However, the ICA has introduced a measure at both checkpoints that could reduce wait time for travellers. Customs checks are now conducted at immigration counters, while drivers are awaiting clearance. This eliminates the backflow of vehicles waiting to enter lanes for security checks after immigration, and creates a longer distance between Customs and the checkpoint exit for those who may try to dash through, said an ICA official.
The initiative, called forward check, was introduced at the Tuas Checkpoint on Sept 21 this year and at the Woodlands Checkpoint on Dec 1.
Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam, who visited the Woodlands Checkpoint last Saturday morning , said that manpower has been increased to accommodate the higher volume of traffic during the holiday season.
"Based on the increased manning, all or most counters are open," he said.
Addressing the reported four to five hour wait times, he said: "I think earlier this week, there was a bigger crush; but it is unlikely that it was four to five hours on the Singapore side. It is likely to include waiting time on the Malaysian side as well. Our own records suggest that on our side, at most it will be two hours plus, under three hours.
"People understand that, as a result of what has happened in Paris and the heightened terrorism threats worldwide, ensuring the safety of Singapore and Singaporeans is ICA's foremost priority. We have to check passports and vehicles."
Correction note: An earlier version of this story stated that there were four motorcycle lanes on the Malaysian side of the Causeway but only three on the Singapore side, leading to a “ballooning” of traffic. It should be four vehicle lanes. We are sorry for the error.