No obvious increase in commuter numbers on trains on first day of eased Covid-19 rules in S'pore

Commuters on board Outram Park MRT, which is heading towards the city, on April 5, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
The office crowd exiting Raffles Place MRT station as they head to work at about 8.30am on April 5, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Commuters on a train heading towards the CBD at Outram Park MRT station yesterday at 8.30am. Although it was the first day of eased regulations giving companies more leeway to shift from working from home, most commuters The Straits Times spoke to di
Commuters on a train heading towards the city at Outram Park MRT station at 8.30am on April 5, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - The morning commuting crowd streamed out of Raffles Place MRT station, most of them office workers walking closely behind one another.

From 8.30am to 9.30am on Monday (April 5), the tap of bank and ez-link cards at the gantries was relentless. If not for the wearing of face masks, one could almost forget that people continue to live through a viral pandemic.

But daily morning commuters whom The Straits Times spoke to said this has been the case for months. Despite Monday being the first day of eased regulations for workplaces, with companies allowed to bring up to 75 per cent of their staff back to the office at any one time, there was no noticeable further crowding in train cars.

Although workers have been returning to the office, a good number of them are still working from home, or avoiding the peak hour.

"There is no difference. All same," a security guard who works near the train station said of yesterday's traffic compared to previous weeks.

"I don't know if this will change. It's a good level."

Ms Rebecca Quah, 35, a financial consultant who alighted at Raffles Place MRT station at 8.30am - traditionally the morning peak hour - said: "Companies are not exactly rushing to change their policies. People have become quite comfortable with how they work.

"It is only the first day and I think many companies are asking their staff what they want before making them return to the office."

She had made it a point to leave home five minutes earlier on Monday "just in case". Her concerns were unfounded.

At no point in the journey did she feel her personal space was intruded upon, unlike during pre-Covid-19 times, when there was barely any standing room, she added.

The eased workplace regulations announced last week kicked in on Monday, as the Government seeks to give companies more leeway to shift from working from home as the default to a more hybrid way of working, with employees' time split between home and the workplace.

The 75 per cent cap is up from the 50 per cent previously allowed, but rostered split teams, staggered hours, and continued work-from-home arrangements are expected to moderate increases in public transport use and spread out staff's arrival and departure times.

Instead of having to reach the office by 9am, for instance, workers might reach the office at 10am. They might also return to office three days a week instead of all five days.

Employers whom ST spoke to last week said flexible hours will continue to be the norm. Some are conducting internal surveys to find out how best to bring their employees back without making them uncomfortable.

At Marina Bay Financial Centre, at the heart of the Central Business District, the general sentiment was also one of calm. There were empty seats on trains, even during peak hour.

"I thought it was usual," said Mrs Sushma Pillay, 40, a business analyst. "I took the train from Tampines and I was able to get a seat."

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But Mr Stanley Foo, a 29-year-old software developer who works in the area, said there was a slight increase, even if it was a far cry from the time when working from the office was the norm.

"I started my ride from Hougang and noticed that there were slightly more people compared with last month, maybe 10 per cent more."

Transport economist Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said it is difficult to foresee if crowds on trains will return to pre-Covid-19 levels.

While firms and employees tout the benefits of flexible work practices and claim they intend to make it permanent, there are also those who believe more strongly in the productivity and team-building advantages of having staff in one place.

"I do not expect there to be a sudden change day to day, but I do expect that many workplaces will start to see more people reporting to the office over the next few weeks to months," Prof Theseira said.

"I do expect demand for public transport to rise, but I think it's also important to appreciate that public transport ridership has been rising steadily over the last few months despite little change in official work-from-home policy".

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Instead of having to reach the office by 9am, for instance, workers might reach the office at 10am. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

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