SINGAPORE - At 5.15am on Saturday (Aug 28), minutes before the Thomson-East Coast Line gantry at Caldecott MRT station officially opened to the public, a middle-aged man in a blue shirt and shorts walked to station personnel and said: "I want to take the first train."
It was also a nostalgic trip for the school teacher, Mr Yap Siew Meng, 49, because in the 1980s, he was among the first to ride an MRT train when services for the mass rapid transit started and stations opened.
On Saturday, Mr Yap joined at least three other passengers who were the first to be travel along the newly opened extended stretch of the Thomson-East Coast Line, spanning six stations from Caldecott to Springleaf.
The first train at Caldecott MRT station departed at 5.50am, at the crack of dawn.
At around 7am, trains were starting to fill up slowly, with about four passengers scattered around each car.
The highly anticipated six-station stretch, named TEL2, connects the new Springleaf, Lentor, Mayflower, Bright Hill, Upper Thomson and Caldecott stations.
The line's first three stations - Woodlands North, Woodlands and Woodlands South, collectively called TEL1 - opened in January last year.
Mr Yap, who lives in Bedok, woke up at 4.45am and took a cab to Caldecott station to catch the first train.
He works in a school in Bishan and said he is likely to take the Thomson-East Coast Line more frequently in the coming years when the line extends to the east.
"I saw many reports on (TEL2). It is brand new and I was excited. I wanted to be the first in Singapore to take the train."
The Saturday MRT ride from the newly opened station was also a symbolic one for the teacher.
In 1987, Mr Yap - then 15 years old - was one of the first to board an MRT train when operations began with just five stations on the North-South Line, from Toa Payoh to Yio Chu Kang.
"I still have the train ticket from 1987, a golden-coloured ticket," he said.
Mr Yap also has a hobby of making YouTube videos of bus, train and cable car rides, including trips to attractions such as Marina Bay Sands. He plans to upload his video of the first TEL2 train later in the day.
When fully completed around 2025, the 43km Thomson-East Coast Line will run from Woodlands North to Sungei Bedok in the east, covering 32 stations.
Saturday was the second stage of the line's opening, with nine stations in operation. The rest of the stations will progressively open in three more stages over the next few years.
For Madam Lim Guek Lin, who lives near Caldecott, the extended train line will save a lot of travel time as she can now take a single train line up to Woodlands, where she works in an electronics factory.
The 63-year-old was also one of the passengers on the first train on Saturday.
Previously, to get to work, she had to take a bus to Braddell MRT station on the North-South Line and ride up to Sembawang station, before taking a bus to her workplace.
With the TEL2, not only is her travel route more straightforward, Madam Lim can also get to work earlier. On her old route, the first North-South Line train only reaches Braddell later at 6.05am.
"It's very late for me because by the time the bus I take arrives, it is often very packed and I can't board it. With the new line, it's much more convenient for me," said Madam Lim in Mandarin.
TEL2 will have two interchanges - Caldecott station on the Circle Line; and Bright Hill on the future Cross Island Line.
Trains along the Thomson-East Coast Line will arrive at stations every five minutes during peak hours and every nine minutes off-peak.
The first train on Saturday took about 30 minutes to reach Woodlands North station from Caldecott.
TEL2 was initially set to roll out in the second half of last year, but was delayed due to the pandemic and a review of the rail system software because of a major signalling fault on TEL1 last December.
The current stretch from Woodlands North to Caldecott will benefit about 100,000 households. Once completed, the entire 32-station line will cost more than $25 billion, and it will also link to the upcoming cross-border rapid transit line to Johor Baru.
Other early birds on the first train at TEL2 on Saturday morning were two father-son pairs.
Eleven-year-old Eamon Kwong and his father, Mr Adrian Kwong, boarded the first train at Upper Thomson station.
Eamon said: "I wanted to see the train all new and clean. It's like a once-in-a-lifetime moment."
Watching his son excitedly bound to the front of the train and seeing it zip through the tunnel felt like a blast from the past for Mr Kwong, 47.
It brought back memories of his first MRT ride in 1987, when the first 6km stretch of the North-South Line was opened.
"I remember when I was a kid, in 1987, taking the very first MRT segment. I remembered how exciting it was, so I thought I would just let him come and see (TEL2), and remember this moment."
As for the second father-son duo, train lover Shion Adachi, 14, asked his father, Mr Kazuhiko Adachi, to drive him to Caldecott station from their home in Clementi.
"My son likes fast trains. He remembers his first train ride in Japan when he was three or four. His passion for trains has stuck with him ever since," said Mr Adachi, 49, who works in finance.
Hailing from Japan, Shion and Mr Adachi have been living in Singapore for the past six years.
Throughout the ride along the Thomson-East Coast Line, Shion and other commuters were busy taking videos of the ride and the train's interior.
The stations on the new stretch were also designed to be pleasing to the eye, while keeping commuters' comfort in mind.
Some benches at the six stations come with armrests and backrests. The signs at the stations also have larger fonts and simple icons so that they are easier to read. The exits are also indicated by numbers instead of letters.
For the Thomson-East Coast Line trains, each train car has five doors, compared with four on other trains. This allows passengers to alight faster, and to avoid pushing through people when the train is crowded.
Various pieces of art - including drawings and artwork along the walls and station platforms, and art installations - have been installed at the six stations.
While waiting for their train in Upper Thomson station, commuters can entertain themselves by looking for 88 drawings of animals hidden all over the station.
At Mayflower station, passengers can snap pictures of tiny bird sculptures perched on different parts of the station.
With numerous green spaces and nature trails such as MacRitchie Reservoir and Springleaf Nature Park located nearby, the TEL2 stations will make travelling more convenient for fitness enthusiasts and nature lovers.
At the line's opening ceremony on Friday, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said TEL2 may well become a "makan corridor", referencing the eateries near the stations. For example, Springleaf Prata Place - a stone's throw away from Springleaf MRT station - is a household name for roti prata, briyani, thosai and murtabak.
Mr Kwong said: "A lot of people may get off at Upper Thomson station today because of the various ways it has been advertised - dining options and nature."