North-South, East-West, which MRT Line is the best?

An MRT train on the North-South line approaching Ang Mo Kio station.
An MRT train on the North-South line approaching Ang Mo Kio station.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - I have often been accused by my Land Transport Authority engineer friends that I hardly write anything positive about Singapore's transit system. It is an accusation I have no problem in refuting, but I must admit that recent events have made it hard to be cheery of late.

Nevertheless, I thought I would still try (to be cheery). And the opportunity arose just now, when I was out checking reports of a leak at the Hillview station, a northern stop on the six-month-old Downtown Line 2.

On such occasions, I make it a point to take the train. It is an opportunity for me to conduct a quick dipstick survey of the network.

My journey from Braddell to Newton was on the old North-South Line. From Newton, I switched to the Downtown Line to take me to Hillview.

The contrast between the trains was stark, which is to be expected. The newer train was squeaky clean and brightly lit, which made it seem more spacious and airy. The air-conditioning was also crisper, which could have been because of newness or relative emptiness of the train.

There were far fewer people on the Downtown Line train on a per-car basis. Lots of empty seats. For those who prefer to stand, there are butt-rests to lean against.

The ride was also smoother, quieter and more comfortable. You can actually carry out a phone conversation if you wish - something which is impossible on older trains. It is the gold class of all our lines, beating the Circle Line, which is the next newest line.

On my journey back, I chose to take the North-South Line from Choa Chu Kang, which is not far from Hillview.

Past experiences told me that this is one of the worst stretches of our network. The trains tend to be noisy, rocky and slow. The last trait made journeys insufferable. So I braced myself for a long, tortuous trip back to the office.

But surprisingly, the train was nearly as comfortable as the one on the Downtown Line. Readers who follow my motoring columns will know that I am quite particular about ride comfort, and I must say here, the North-South Line train was astoundingly good.

And it was not slow, either. It wasn't as fast as the Downtown Line train, but it wasn't crawling like it used to just a couple of years ago.

It would seem that all the rail renewal works thus far have worked. The completed resleepering, tamping of the granite ballast and lifting of speed restrictions have made this stretch - the oldest at 29 years - almost brand new.

This stretch is also where the LTA has erected noise barriers to cut down on noise as trains pass by flats. But even without these barriers, I would wager that the noise level is now lower than previously because the train wheels are better profiled, and the new sleepers ensure a flatter progress. This lower noise level is obvious in the cabin, too.

That is as far as the track goes. The train, however, looked its age. A couple of things would have improved this impression - upping the intensity of lighting (either by switching to more powerful lighting, or changing the yellowed lamp covers); and cleaning the trains more regularly (window and floor stains were all too obvious).

One blessing lies with the air-con system, which was powerful even in the afternoon sun.

The journey from Choa Chu Kang to Braddell was uneventful, except for once or twice when the train doors had to open and close again. The five-minute interval between trains was also fairly good for off-peak.

Now, for the not-so-good part. Between the Downtown Line and North-South Line, I took a connecting ride on the Bukit Panjang LRT. And because it was one of the rare occasions when I rode on the BPLRT, I took a round trip.

Alas, the line is as ghastly as its track record. The single-car train pulled up with a loud screech, and it looked as dated and grimy as the LRT in Kuala Lumpur (but thankfully, not as crowded). The ride was bumpy, jerky and slow. And it stopped for at least three minutes at Ten Mile Junction.

The train looked like something out of a 1970s theme park, and completely at odds with the image of the overall rail network here.

The windows misted as the train passed near flats, though. At least this privacy feature worked. But in a two-car train I hopped on next, the windows stayed misted throughout. Worse, its air-con was not working.

As readers well know, the BPLRT is the most troublesome line in our entire rail system. Despite several attempts to improve it, it keeps breaking down. And going by my ride on Monday (May 23), I am not surprised it is in such a state.

One wonders if the extra effort to get this system working is worth it. If we scrapped it, and revert to a feeder bus system, I don't think residents in Bukit Panjang would be far worse off.

And it will improve our rail reliability statistics overnight. On a per-km basis, the BPLRT as well as the Sengkang-Punggol LRT are far less reliable than our MRT lines. As my ride shows, it is not something you look forward to, even when it is working.

Thankfully, not many people use the LRT. Total LRT patronage makes up less than 5 per cent of overall rail ridership. By that token, the rejuvenation of the North-South Line will benefit a lot more people than the BPLRT will irritate those who continue to use it.

I suppose we should count that as a blessing, too.