A large fleet of additional buses will be required to ferry commuters left in the lurch due to shorter hours on the MRT's East-West Line, and the cost of this operation will be borne by the Government and rail operator SMRT.
"LTA and SMRT will share in the costs of operating these additional bus services," the Land Transport Authority (LTA), a statutory board under the Transport Ministry, said in response to queries from The Straits Times yesterday.
The same goes for shuttle bus service between Joo Koon and Gul Circle, which will remain in place until at least next June while train service between the two stations is suspended. Buses bridging Joo Koon and Gul Circle are free, but those plying along the 19 other stations hit by the shorter hours will charge equivalent train fares for the distance.
LTA said this week that 17 East-West and two North-South line stations will have shorter service hours from Dec 8 to Dec 31, and will close for the whole day on Dec 10 and Dec 17. Other sections of the line will also have these shortened service times to allow resignalling work to be completed by June instead of the original December 2018 timeline.
The rush to get the new signalling system up on the East-West Line comes after a train collision on Nov 15. Investigations point to compatibility issues between the old and new signalling systems. The authorities have decided to separate the two systems - and thus sections of the line - to prevent more incidents.
To serve displaced commuters, SBS Transit will be roped in to provide extra buses, and private bus operators are expected to be called on.
But experts and industry players said it will be a challenge to provide enough buses, and these could also contribute to road congestion.
A senior manager of a bus operator who declined to be named said: "We may have some excess capacity at night, but in the morning, it will be quite tough. Even on Sundays, the trains are quite full. And if the bus services are not done well, there will be complaints. There will also be increased congestion on the road."
National University of Singapore transport lecturer Lee Der Horng said: "During peak hours, one full-load train can have as many as 1,600 passengers, and it is two minutes per train. So, an hourly load can hit 48,000. You need more than 500 buses, and that is only for one direction." Professor Lee said the volume will be lower for an isolated section of the line, and at weekends, but it will still be significant.
Singapore University of Social Sciences economist Walter Theseira expects "less travel demand than normal because commuters are likely to consider alternate routes or cancel their travel plans due to concerns about potential delays".
Both experts feel that signalling provider Thales should share the cost of the bus contingency plans, expected to cost $300,000 a month. "Thales, if it caused the disruption, should provide some goodwill contribution... to show it accepts responsibility," Dr Theseira said.
When asked if Thales should pay, LTA said "other investigations" were still ongoing.
A Thales spokesman said: "Thales has acknowledged and apologised for its part in the collision. We have also directly apologised to the injured commuters and their families. Our focus lies on delivering that system in a safe and timely manner, whatever it takes."
Thales clinched the resignalling contract with what is believed to be a lowest bid of $195 million. It is its first signalling project here. Most others were done by Alstom.