The decision to call a tender to overhaul the problematic Bukit Panjang LRT will be welcomed by residents who have had to endure repeated service breakdowns. The Light Rail Transit line has been beset with problems since it began operating in 1999. According to Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, the system owes its persistent woes to having been constructed as an after-thought to a built-up town and that, too, because of political pressure. The background is that when the Government announced in 1991 that it would build the MRT line to Woodlands, residents of Bukit Panjang asked for an extension to their town. Transport planners determined that this was not feasible, but the Government promised residents that it would explore alternative means to meet their commuting needs.
Hence the LRT, which became an exercise in engineering masochism, was forced to make its way through ups and downs and twists and turns on undulating terrain. Those exertions took their toll on the system to the point that scrapping it altogether was one of several possibilities explored last year. Since this option would have forced residents to go back to riding buses that would produce road congestion, alternative plans focused on deploying self-powered autonomous guided vehicles on the existing viaduct; building a new LRT system with significant design enhancements; and renewing the existing system with more updated signalling apparatus. While details of the overhaul, announced by Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng in Parliament, are awaited, it is reassuring that Bukit Panjang residents can count on the arrival of better and more reliable services.
This moment provides for a degree of introspection on the future of public transport generally. Political pressure, in the form of demands for ease of accessibility to overall transport networks, is to be expected. It falls on the authorities to decide whether the demands can be met given the topography of a particular area. Singapore is not short of engineering expertise, but not every demand is amenable to an engineering solution.
Instead, a realistic balance needs to be struck between efforts to enhance the availability and the reliability of transport. Bluntly put, it is probably better for commuters to have fewer but more reliable options than an extensive system which is prone to endemic failure. A holistic approach to the role of transport in the future economy of Singapore needs to take into account just how costly breakdowns can be in the fast-paced life of the nation. Breakdowns in the functioning of the MRT system called into question Singapore's penchant for clockwork efficiency. Minds were later focused and energies directed at bringing the system back up to optimal speed. The lessons of the LRT need to be absorbed similarly.