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View Poll Results: Your opinion?
SBS Transit should focus on its bus business and sell the NEL to SMRT. 11 47.83%
SBS Transit should keep NEL but should share resources and expertise with SMRT in order to cut costs. 10 43.48%
I like things the way they are. 2 8.70%
Voters: 23. You may not vote on this poll

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Old June 24th, 2003, 11:35 PM   #1
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MRT North-East Line



The North-East Line in Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit system was flagged off on 20th June 2003. Costing S$5 billion, NEL serves about 250,000 commuters daily in estates like Sengkang and Hougang across 16 stations. The Straits Times Picture Desk took a ride on the NEL and captured the stations in pictures.


WELCOME TO NEL: The North-East Line (NEL), the 20km underground mass-rapid transit line from Punggol to HarbourFront, is the world's first fully automated heavy rail line. It began operations on 20th June 2003.


GRAVEYARD SHIFT: It's midnight, but the SBS Transit depot in Sengkang East Avenue is where maintenance work is starting up so that NEL is fit for running come morning.


FAULT-FINDER: You'll never get to ride on this multi-functional vehicle, which sniffs for flaws on the rails. Called engineering trains, these heavy-hitters will lumber out of the Sengkang depot in the dead of the night, performing tasks such as scanning the profile of train tunnels to grinding worn-out rails back into shape.


HOW'S THE AIR?: To ensure passengers enjoy clean air, Mr Abdul Salim checks the air-conditioning in the train using a laptop which is hooked to the train's computer system.


CONTROL CENTRE: Situated in the NEL's depot in Sengkang East Avenue, the Operations Control Centre (OCC) is the nerve centre for the entire system. It boasts rows of computers, a gigantic TV screen displaying a schematic of the NEL and backup depot maps.


SENTOSA, HERE WE COME: Sentosa, the resort island off Singapore's southern coast, will become more accessible. The station for Destination Sentosa is HarbourFront.


ARTY STATIONS: The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has spent S$6.7 million to create and install a large spectrum of art, from abstract acrylics to Chinese brush paintings, for all the 16 stations along NEL.


SHADES OF CHINESE: The work of artist Tan Swie Hian, this wall mural and another, a piece of calligraphy, are on display at the Chinatown station. This mural, titled The Phoenix's Eye Domain, depicts the mythical bird making its way from China to Singapore.


TEST AND RE-TEST: Driverless, NEL is a highly-automated system controlled by more than 500 computer systems, most of which are custom-made. Thus, launch of the NEL had to be delayed for seven months because these systems had to be re-configured and tested, again and again before things became right.


TURNSTILE KIDS: The Land Transport Authority hired nearly 200 tertiary students to test NEL's turnstiles, which allow 40 passengers through each gate per minute. From 8.30am to 5.30pm, the students took turns to walk in and out of the gates. Each had to clock 300 'rides' a day. For this, they were each paid S$5.50 an hour.


BIGGEST STATION: Chances are high that some will get lost in the sprawling Dhoby Ghaut station. With five underground levels, it is the largest in the MRT network.


GETTING TO KNOW NEL: Before NEL began operations, about 350 disabled people visited the NEL statons to familarise themselves with facilities implemented for them.


DISABLED-FRIENDLY: The handicapped will be able to use NEL safely. All 16 stations along the line have platform doors for safety, ramps and fare gates wide enough for wheelchairs to pass through.


FEEL THE WAY: Mr Steven Yeo says that these tactile markers, which will guide the blind through the station from the lifts to the fare gates and platform doors, will enhance the safety of the NEL for blind commuters.

Tunnel vision kept N-E Line project on the rails

The NEL's finally opening, after seven years of gruelling planning, sheer hard work and setbacks.


MR RAJAN Krishnan, project director of the fully-underground North-East MRT Line (NEL), has reason to feel on top of the world. "Frankly, if you look at projects around the world, it's not often one gets a chance to work on a $5-billion project,'' said the soft-spoken senior Land Transport Authority (LTA) officer.

The NEL stretches 20km from the HabourFront (the former World Trade Centre) in the south to Punggol New Town in the north-east. It has 16 stations and links population and commercial centres such as Chinatown, Outram, Clarke Quay, Potong Pasir, Serangoon, Hougang, Sengkang and Punggol. The building of the NEL has taken nearly seven years.

Mr Rajan, who started his career with the Housing Board, said: "You get a couple of these projects in your lifetime and, hey, that's it. And if you get five seven-year projects, that's your career - 35 years of working,'' he laughed. The 52-year-old civil engineer has just about that many mega-projects under his belt. He was resident engineer for the first MRT line in the 1980s, then project coordinator for the Boon Lay and Woodlands extensions.

The target, just 1.5 m by 2 m, was almost 20 times smaller than what an enemy target would usually be, making it harder for the radar to track it. Ten rounds were fired from the ship's Oto Melara gun and all 10 hit the target. The crew was ecstatic. The ship's commanding officer, Major Timothy Lo, 32, said: 'I was thinking that five out of 10 would be good enough. So 10 out of 10 surprised us.'

The second exercise on Monday pitted the ship against an Indian submarine. RSS Vigour had to track it down using its sonar and fire a torpedo at it. At the moment the torpedo was ready for release, the system signalled a start-up error. It was traced to the armament's warhead, which had been replaced with a recording mechanism for the exercise. Major Lo quickly switched to the contingency plan. RSS Valiant sped in to swop positions with his vessel. Within 25 minutes, it launched a torpedo and hit the submarine.

He then gathered six design people. "October 1995, we had our first meeting. That was how we started,'' he said. The core team of 12 began working at the North Bridge Road office, where SMRT Corp has its offices.

Although feasibility studies had been done as far back as the early 1980s, the actual task of delivering the line "in six to seven years'' was daunting, he said. "We figured we had to start calling our first design-and-build contracts in June 1996,'' he said. "And we were letting out contracts, like, once a month.'' That meant that the other challenge -- even before the first excavation began -- was finding people for the job. That wasn't as easy as it sounds.

The last major tunnelling job was for Phase I of the MRT line, which had been completed by 1987. Now, 10 years on, they were going back to underground works in a big way. But all the specialists brought in from overseas had already left. "There was a dire need to recruit people,'' he added, and assembling a team, their biggest task at the time, took a good part of 1996. The initial dozen eventually ballooned to more than 600.

Over the next six years, they managed by these five cornerstones: quality, safety, meeting schedules, working within budget, and environmental or public considerations. "We took on the responsibility to ensure quality is there. We didn't pass it on to the contractors. We signed off the work, put our professional dhobi mark on it,'' he said. "Similarly, when we deal with the public, we front it,'' he added.

This was a concerted effort because Singapore had become more built-up since the first MRT lines were constructed, and the NEL was going through a densely-populated corridor. Not surprisingly, the public made itself heard over the course of the project. Some people called Mr Rajan personally.

One woman was booking an HDB flat in Sengkang and wanted him to tell her which flat to choose. (He faxed her a map showing where the Sengkang station would be). Another called to say that her grandson, who would nap while she ferried him to school in the morning, was disturbed by the bumpy road diversions. (He had the stretch smoothened). "Some of the feedback we get is very personalised ... but it's all very valid,'' he said. "It gives us a different perspective.''

Some complaints were less legitimate. "A guy who lived about 1km away from a station being built said he found some cracks in his house,'' he said. But the team convinced him that given the distance and size of the excavation, it was too improbable that it was responsible for the cracks.

Despite the precautions they took, the project was not accident free. "We had five fatalities. There were a number of injuries too.'' He added: ""We must target zero, because one life lost is one too many.''

The sheer ambition of the project was mind-boggling, he said. ""When I first saw the plans for Chinatown station, the first thing that hit me was "My God! Somebody actually wants to put a station there! You have two big roads there. There's a canal in between, then there's the Garden Bridge ... imagine what it is like during Chinese New Year. And you want to dig up the whole place?'' he recalled, eyes wide with remembered incredulity.'' Indeed, Chinatown turned out to be the most challenging station.
The roads had to be closed twice because of cave-ins.

Another challenge was the integrated development at the Dhoby Ghaut Interchange. It was the first time the LTA was playing property developer. And right smack in Orchard Road, no less. The physical challenges included building a new station next to an existing one (Dhoby Ghaut), and devising ways to link the two so that commuters need not pass through fare gates when moving between the two.

The commercial development, eventually called The Atrium@Orchard, was to become a model for maximising land usage around MRT stations. On this score, the NEL, unlike previous lines, goes a step further. "Except for stations just above road junctions, we have to build provisions to accommodate future developments so that developers can build on the station blocks or at the entrances,'' Mr Rajan explained. So far, two developers have done so. Centrepoint Properties has a mixed development at the Sengkang station; Far East Organisation is building another at Clarke Quay.

A third massive challenge was disposing of the earth dug up during the project ? nine million cubic metres of it. That became a project within a project: about six million cubic metres became landfill in Lorong Halus, Tampines. The other three million was marine clay, a gooey, unusable material that had to be dumped at sea. The LTA had to manage the disposal stringently, otherwise "we'd have illegal dumping all over Singapore''. "We're talking about a million lorry loads,'' Mr Rajan said. That worked out to more than 1,000 lorry-loads a day over the 2 years from mid-1997 to 2000. Mr Rajan said: "We'd never done it before. It's a completely new field. From a risk assessment point of view, something you don't know worries you more.''

They had to deal with artists, ""which is not my normal work'', and have them work within the ""hard and tough world of contractors'', he said. Mr Rajan said: ""Initially, the idea excites you, but the path to that destination also worries you.'' But he worried for nothing. The contractors went out of their way to help embed works of 19 Singapore artists into the stations' walls and floors. "They were totally helpful,'' he said. "In the end, it shows we're back to our human side.''

There was also a community project where the hand-prints of 2,000 residents were cast as a permanent display in Hougang station. "The contractor went from constituency to constituency, to schools, various places, over two to three months, collecting hand-prints,'' he said. It could not have been done if not for their own enthusiasm to see it through, he said.

Now that the line is going to open, Mr Rajan feels quite privileged. There when it was conceived, he worked through its long gestation, and has now witnessed its delivery. Not many of the more than 600 who worked on the project have been so privileged. "Most of them have already left for other projects elsewhere,'' he said.
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Old June 24th, 2003, 11:45 PM   #2
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ShIitt!! Its so nice!!!! I wonder what that first station is.
I cant believe that now the World Trade Centre and Chinatown will be so accessible by MRT. Cant wait to check it out!!

And I am impressed that the stations are decorated with local art too
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Old June 25th, 2003, 09:30 AM   #3
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Thats the HarbourFront station.

If you tink that's nice, wait till you see Kovan station (the one serving my place). It is the only columnless station with a huge carvenous hall....better then HarbourFront.
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Old June 25th, 2003, 09:47 AM   #4
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wow nice, especially the station it is very unique. should have a ride if i go 2 Singapore
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Old June 26th, 2003, 09:37 PM   #5
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A small collection of people's letters to the Straits Times Forums page:

I TOOK my first ride on the North-East Line (NEL) at 9 pm on Saturday. After a somewhat-confusing walk from the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, involving several escalators, some going up, and some down, I made it to the new station.

I boarded the spanking-new train with several middle-aged women and a family of three. After one stop, we were treated to a spectacular display of how well the doors had been made. The train stopped for 10 minutes at Farrer Park Station, seemingly for no other reason than to show us the doors' ability to open and close 10 times rapidly. This was followed by an announcement for passengers to alight and board the next train.

We all alighted and the train started to move off, prompting one of the women to comment, 'Now no people in the train, that's why can move.'

The next train was rather packed. I managed to find space to step in, not a moment too soon. The doors closed barely four seconds after they opened, separating the family of three.

The train must have been on a very strict and precise timetable because the couple outside banging on it were ignored and left behind as we sped away with their child.

The other passengers in the train must have sensed the operator's unyielding schedule and jostled to get ready at the doors even before we reached the next station. Imagine their horror when the train pulled into the station and they were greeted by a sign stuck on the station door saying, 'Door Faulty. Please use next door'. There was a small stampede to get to the next door before the four seconds were up.

The rest of my trip was spent eyeing the doors, trying to guess which might correspond to a faulty door at my destination. All in all, it was a very interesting ride.

CHIANG SEOK PHENG (MADAM)

I TRANSFERRED from NEL to a bus on Friday. To my surprise, I was charged the full bus fare when I alighted at my stop. No transfer rebate was given.

The NEL guide states that 'adults using ez-link cards for payment will enjoy the existing transfer rebate for valid transfers between the train and bus services'.

Those who transferred from NEL to a bus that day should check if they were given the transfer rebate.

FONG KAI HONG

WHEN I took the NEL train from HarbourFront to Dhoby Ghaut, I was charged $2.04 when the fare should be 99 cents. The same amount was deducted from my husband's ez-link card.

After some thought, I realised that we had left the underground line from the existing MRT's exit point, instead of NEL's.

TAY LI PING (MS)

The grand opening of NEL was marred by the unruly behaviour of Singaporeans pushing and shoving for free movie tickets. If something trivial like free tickets were to elicit such desperate behaviour, I can't imagine what it would be like if Singapore were to be hit by a famine and rations were being distributed instead. The little boy interviewed on television would probably have been trampled to death instead of merely being pushed to the ground.

It was ridiculous watching kids and even adults chasing after the poor chap with the tickets, shouting 'I want! I want!'. For a while I thought I was watching a madcap comedy, instead of the news.

It is amazing how one moment we are collectively fighting the severe acute respiratory syndrome and the next we are fighting for freebies while celebrating a milestone in our nation's transportation history.

What puzzles me even more is that some of those people didn't even have a clue what they were rushing for. This is yet another example that queuing mindlessly for freebies has become a national pastime. I hope it doesn't come to a stage where we have to deploy riot police at such events.

MARK WONG HSIEN WU

YOU won't miss the new Chinatown Station on the North-East Line: just follow your nose. The moment the train doors open, the smell of bak kwa and butter oil hits you.

The smell comes from the exit leading to OG and Majestic Building and can be traced to Bee Cheng Hiang, which sells barbecued pork, and BreadTalk.

It is not the only station that smells - Bugis on the old network is another - but it may be the worst.

HENRY LIM LI SHUN

I LIVE in Melbourne, Australia, and visit Singapore every year for a couple of weeks to see my relatives, who live in Hougang.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been here on Friday, the inaugural day of the North-East Line (NEL). I was absolutely impressed by the magnificent rides I had to the city from Hougang and back.

The speed, cleanliness, efficiency and convenience of the new system are in a class of their own. Transport officials from the rest of the world would be well advised to visit Singapore to ride, observe and emulate what is, without question, one of this planet's super mass rapid transport systems.

Residents of north-east Singapore should leave their cars at home and take a ride on NEL or they would not know what they are missing.

My congratulations to all who worked to make the system possible.

As for the occasional door not opening properly, who cares? I would have gladly sat a whole day on NEL, without getting off!

DILIP ABRAHAM

Singaporeans are hard to please arent we?
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Old October 29th, 2003, 11:35 AM   #6
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Surprise Govt U-turn on NEL


Surprise Govt U-turn on NEL

As realities of high overheads hit home, Transport Minister says SMRT can take over new train line or consider merger

By Christopher Tan


SMRT may go back to running all MRT trains. And SBS Transit may stick to buses.

Just four months after the North-East Line (NEL) started operating, the situation has forced a reality check on government thinking about competition in public transport.

Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong dropped the bombshell when he was asked yesterday if SBS Transit could transfer the loss-making NEL to another operator.

'It makes good sense,' he told reporters after a site visit to the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway. 'If there's only one company running all the MRT systems, I think a lot of the overheads can be saved.'

The NEL started up late and is bleeding red ink. The reality of high overheads has hit home, he said.

The Government has finally taken the point that forcing competition does not make sense when it enforces the duplication of high overheads.

He said: 'We realise now that operating a rail system involves a lot of overheads. And when you have two rail operators, it means both companies have to incur pretty similar overheads which are quite significant.'

'We are therefore open to any move by the two operators to discuss the possibility of merging the two lines, or transferring one line to the other operator. We should not stand in the way of reality.'

This U-turn is all the more stunning considering his stout defence of the status quo only two months ago in Parliament, when MPs quizzed him on the need for two train operators.

What now? SMRT chief executive Saw Phaik Hwa said that, in principle, she did not foresee problems running the NEL. 'I think we can do a better job,' she said.

But any 'takeover' would boil down to the terms.

'My shareholders will question me if I take over a line that loses $40 million, $30 million or $20 million a year,' she said.

SMRT is running the Bukit Panjang LRT at a loss, but did not know that would be the case when it took over the system.

The NEL is different. 'It's that much harder to justify taking over, knowing full well it's bleeding,' she said.

Still, when ridership and fares rise, the NEL should be viable, she said.

Would she make SBS Transit an offer?

'Maybe Kua Hong Pak should call me and make me an offer I can't refuse,' she said half in jest, referring to the chief executive of SBS' parent ComfortDelGro Corp.

Did she mean SBS should pay SMRT to move in? 'Something like that,' she replied. 'Why should I pay for something that is loss-making?'

The two have not met on the matter, she said.

'We haven't talked, but I'm very willing to talk,' she added.

Mr Kua declined comment, apart from saying: 'Whatever we say will be construed one way or another, and will be price-sensitive.'

Analysts generally agreed that SBS would be better off without the NEL, but doubted it would happen.

One said the NEL stood to lose at least $25 million this year and that would drag down SBS Transit earnings.

As for holding on until the NEL breaks even, he said, that will happen only when daily ridership, now just 170,000, exceeds 250,000, as each trip averages just 80 cents.

Another analyst said: 'If they can sell it for $1, they should.

'The market will reward its move.'

Pasir Ris-Punggol MP Charles Chong, who has been among the most vocal critics of SBS Transit's handling of the NEL, was taken aback when told of the minister's comments.

'The minister himself defended it in Parliament in August. I'd be keen to know exactly why this about-face has come about.'

What do you guys think of this new development?
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Old October 29th, 2003, 12:42 PM   #7
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Oh man...this is a tough thing to think about. I must say I am quite disturbed by it when it was first mentioned last night. I simply do not like the way LTA is doing things in general. Since this wil be a direct impact on me, let me give a few scenarios that might occur if the changes should occur:

In the status quo, SBS has been removing bus services to encourage ridership on the trains. No doubt, I have been inconvenienced by that before. Coupled with the higher fares for the MRT. But conversely, I do get to enjoy special priviledges on the NEL since I am a member of the "friend of SBS" thingy. The benefit is not great, but it is there. Also, we can expect more responsive changes to promote intergration in the entire NE corridor.

If the change do occur, I would be expecting SBS to reintroduce buses to compete with the trains. The PTC may discourage it for now, but sooner or later, it will occur. Look at the number of buses plying the Eastern MRT route, for example. No doubt, I will be happier. But I wonder if the two companies will be really doing things to compliment each other without PTC making noises....

So....anyone else got comments?
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Old October 29th, 2003, 05:11 PM   #8
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I'm not too sure, as I havent really utilised this line for daily commuting.
I have a feeling that letting SMRT run the NEL makes more sense as there could be better integration?

Not sure what that augurs for bus services though. huaiwei can let us know what happens
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Old October 30th, 2003, 10:46 PM   #9
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Quite a number of news articles appeared today in response to this issue. It seems to be a "big local news" now:

Should SMRT run North-East Line?

No: Economies of scale limited and move against competition drive


By Karamjit Kaur


TRANSPORT analysts are shocked by the suggestion that SBS Transit should transfer the loss-making North-East Mass Rapid Transit line to another operator: They do not see the point, for either operator or commuters. The six experts from local research houses yesterday said it would be a big step backwards in the Government's pro-competition drive.

The matter came up as Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong met reporters on Tuesday at Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway worksites. Asked if SBS Transit could transfer the new line to SMRT Corporation, which runs the North-South and East-West lines, Mr Yeo said 'it makes good sense'. With one company in charge he added, a lot of the overheads could be saved.

But associate director for research at DBS Vickers, Mr Chris Sanda, said: 'Among the major costs for a rail operator are electricity, staff and maintenance... you're not going to get many savings in these areas.' The experts also said economies of scale would be limited as the two rail systems are different, separated by 15 years of technological know-how. North-East line consumers, who pay up to 25 cents more than on other MRT lines, are also unlikely to benefit, because the higher fares are to make up for the higher cost of running a fully underground and automated line.

Trouble started for SBS Transit even before the 20km Punggol to HarbourFront line opened. It was scheduled to open last November, but the date was pushed back, costing the operator millions. And daily ridership figures of about 170,000 are way below the projection of up to 250,000, because of a slow-down in development of housing estates on the line.

But Mr Sanda said: 'In any business, you can't expect to make money immediately.' SBS Transit is not in the red either. Citigroup Smith Barney said in June it sees the company making pre-tax profits of $16.4 million this year, $28.8 million next year and $43.3 million in 2005 - the year the NEL is expected to become profitable.

An analyst, who did not want to be named, said that if SBS wants to boost ridership, it has other options. 'For example, it could cut more bus routes in the north-east sector to avoid rail and bus duplication.' National University of Singapore Associate Professor K. Raguraman said: 'The most feasible way to increase ridership is to develop the north-east corridor more quickly in terms of housing projects.'

So how will the saga develop? SMRT chief executive Saw Phaik Hwa, has said she will not buy a loss-making business, and it is unlikely that SBS Transit would pay to give up its trains.Mr Sanda said: 'The only way out is for the Government to step in and make some kind of offer to both parties, but the minister has made it quiet clear that the Government won't interfere.'

MINISTRY: NO SUDDEN POLICY U-TURN

THE Transport Minister's press secretary has clarified that Mr Yeo Cheow Tong's comments on having one train operator was not a sudden U-turn in government policy.

Ms Lim Bee Khim took issue with yesterday's Straits Times, which called Mr Yeo's comments on the North-East Line a surprise turnaround, given his stout defence of the status quo only two months ago, in Parliament. 'This is incorrect,' she said. At that August session, she said, he had first explained the ministry's thinking when it decided to introduce a second rail operator in 1998.

He had also stated then that 'now that we have two listed companies running the two lines, we will leave it to the two companies to decide as to whether they should be operated by one or two companies', she added. 'Minister Yeo's position has therefore been consistent. We are open to the transfer of NEL, provided the two companies can come to a commercial agreement on the transfer,' she said.
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Old October 30th, 2003, 10:51 PM   #10
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Should SMRT run North-East Line?

Yes: The better economies of scale will benefit commuters


By Goh Chin Lian And Karamjit Kaur


IT'S better that the Government reacts swiftly to SBS Transit's losses from running the North-East Line by letting major rail operator SMRT take over, than insist on having two competing operators.

Having just one rail operator makes more sense, said MPs and commuters, because it will enjoy economies of scale in a market that is already small to begin with. 'It's good that the Government is now addressing the issue squarely and not burdened by past decisions, but rather looking at reality,' said Aljunied GRC MP and Consumers Association of Singapore president Yeo Guat Kwang.

Hong Kah GRC MP Ang Mong Seng, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for transport, said: 'If you know you're not going to meet your target ridership of 250,000 within two to three years, it's better to make a change now for the commuters to enjoy the economies of scale.'

There was no real competition between rail operators anyway, said Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Charles Chong. He said: 'Initially, when they said 'competition', the principle conjured up in my mind was it would be more efficient, and would help raise standards and lower prices. But now, if you live in the northeast, your choice is the North-East Line. What sort of competition are you talking about?'

The two systems were also not comparable, he said, as SMRT operates a much bigger rail network network. 'What is the benefit of having two operators if there's no real competition, and you cannot benchmark the performance with each other?' He believes SMRT stands a better chance of running NEL more efficiently and at lower cost - since it operates more profitable stations, it will be more able to compensate for losses from quieter stations.

Commuters were less definite in their choice. Mr Ng Kai Meng, an engineer in his 30s, said: 'As long as I get good service and affordable prices, it's okay whichever company runs it.' Mr Joseph Phay, 67, a remisier who lives near Sengkang East Way, said he hoped that any change would lead to both SMRT and SBS Transit competing to win commuters in the north-east area. 'We've been fighting so hard for additional bus services and higher frequencies. Maybe we'll get them then.'
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Old October 30th, 2003, 10:54 PM   #11
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Backtracking on competition? Not so...

Minister's comment on benefits of single rail operator does not mean Govt is giving up on competition, say experts

By Laurel Teo And Rebecca Lee


FIRST, hospitals were told to stop 'silly competition' for patients and market share. Now, it looks like the SMRT may go back to running all MRT trains, while SBS Transit focuses on buses. All this barely four months after the bus operator became a 'multi-modal' transport operator with its running of the North-East Line (NEL).

To casual observers with fresh memories of the Government's push for more players getting involved across all sectors - so competition can lower prices - these events seem to point to one trend: that it is now backtracking on encouraging competition.

But analysts and political commentators do not think this is, in fact, the case. Competition as a principle has not failed, they say. Nor has the Government given up on it. Rather, more needs to be done to fine tune how competition is applied in the provision of services.

In the case of the NEL, there was no real competition to begin with. As MP Charles Chong (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who was among the most vocal critics of SBS Transit's handling of the NEL, put it: 'If you live in the North-east, there's the NEL, and there's still only the NEL.'

Passengers have no alternative in some areas, since SBS Transit also withdrew bus routes to avoid duplication with the rail line it runs. And even though there are two rail operators, they operate lines in different areas and do not compete for the same customers in a particular catchment area.

Others also argued that having two sets of high administrative costs does not make for economies of scale, and actually leads to wastage. So why not let each operator do what it does best - either rail or bus.

Such points were, in fact, raised by critics right from the start, MP Chay Wai Chuen (Tanjong Pagar GRC), who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) on Transport, noted. This raises the question of whether the authorities had done their homework properly.

Also, Singapore is too small physically for it to be viable to have too many companies sharing the transport pie. Said transport engineer Chin Hoong Chor: 'We're not like a big country where you can have one firm running the transport system in the north and another in the east.'

The same argument can be applied to other sectors. Size - or the lack of it - is why public hospitals here should not be divided into two competing clusters, said MP Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC). Since its implementation three years ago, she has been vocal about the concept. 'In Singapore's context, because of the limited resources in medical personnel and managers to run hospitals, the duplication will actually incur extra costs,' said Dr Neo, who chairs the GPC for Health.

Competition between the two clusters appeared to have turned unhealthy - a trend that Acting Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan was determined to put a stop to. He noted earlier this month how hospitals resorted to 'silly competition' such as hiring popular doctors with a large patient base to help fill beds.

But MP Gan Kim Yong (Holland-Bukit Panjang GRC) does not think such comments mean Mr Khaw is censuring competition. Rather, he thinks it suggests 'that the basis for competition should be carefully defined and prioritised'. In fact, the aim of posting hospital charges on the Health Ministry's website - a move Mr Khaw introduced - fosters competition in terms of cost-effectiveness among the hospitals. Consumers and patients can also make better-informed choices. Said Mr Gan, deputy chairman of the Health GPC: 'This is still a form of competition and it is good.'

And what of other sectors recently liberalised, such as the media? What is the impact of competition and might there be a rethink too? GK Goh economist Song Seng Wun thinks not. Unlike for transport, competition has benefited the end-user: 'People get to choose which paper to read and which channel to watch. Ultimately, consumers benefit.'

But political scientist Ho Khai Leong at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies thinks the jury is still out. 'Lack of transparency, information and freedom in industries such as the media raises the question of whether there is genuine liberalisation.'
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Old October 30th, 2003, 10:57 PM   #12
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This final article by a journalist is interesting....what he says does make sense, even if I hope it dosent happen!

Govt's on the right track... because one is enough

By Christopher Tan


ACCORDING to Sun Tzu's Art of War, there are no fewer than five ways of attacking with fire. You can burn soldiers in their camp, set fire to their stores, burn their baggage trains, ignite their arsenals and, finally, hurl 'dropping fire' among the opponent. In today's world, the good general's fiery recipe for his enemies can be summed up simply: There are more ways to inject competition into a public transport system than is being done now.

And Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong's suggestion on Tuesday that Singapore is perhaps better off with one train operator attests to the simplistic wisdom. The so-called multi-modal scheme - which calls for transport companies to run more than one mode of transport - came under scrutiny as soon as the first North-East Line (NEL) train rolled out on June 20.

Operator SBS Transit hired 600-plus people to run the 20km line with 14 opened stations and a ridership that is one-third lower than expected. To top that, opening day was seven months later than projected. SBS is estimated to have sunk nearly $100 million in the new business which is forecast to lose nearly as much before it breaks even. The math doesn't add up. But even if it did, and the system was on time and ridership was as expected, does it make sense in the long run?

Unlikely. Singapore, with its limited and slow-growing consumer base, may not support two train operators comfortably. The capital expenditure for a rail operation is monumental. Given the modest market size and limited upside for profit growth, a newcomer could definitely have had better returns on its capital and effort elsewhere. The same holds true for other industries in the throes of 'managed liberalisation'.

That is not to say a market such as ours cannot have competition in the public sector. Just that in the transport arena, the multi-modal way is not the best avenue. Let's not kid ourselves, the benchmarking of service levels between the two rail systems is not realistic. Geographical difference aside, commuters along the NEL have to bear with higher fares and longer waiting times because the system, we're told, does not have enough riders. So what other aspects of service can we measure? The lighting and air-con on board?

Instead, we should have a more realistic battlefield: Have buses competing head on with trains. This way, commuters would benefit because each operator would vie to provide the best way in getting from point A to B. There may be some duplication of resources, but the market will decide what level of that it can bear.

For instance, if demand for a particular bus service is poor, the operator can either improve, modify or remove it. Commuters would also have choice. Right now, bus services running parallel to rail lines are 'rationalised'. And consumers are often held hostage this way. Having one company running both buses and trains along the same route compounds this inequity. What does the proposed Fair Trading Act say about this?

As for the motivation to coordinate bus and train services to optimise transfers - one of the main reasons for going multi-modal - rivals will have much to gain from synchronisation. Again, the market will decide. Just look at taxis queueing at the airport and pubs.

SMRT and SBS, as the main protagonists, should start talking to each other. They should do a trade, starting with 'I take your loss-making rail line and you take my loss-making buses'. Yes, SMRT's Bus Plus has been bleeding for a long time. And its Tibs bus operation is not exactly ringing the tills either. Do the deed quickly, and let everyone go back to doing what they know best. Commuters will be happy; eventually, shareholders will cheer.

But will SBS be left out in the cold when Singapore's rail network becomes comprehensive? Well, it might not be making as much money, but it has a fairly rich parent in ComfortDelGro. For growth, it can venture overseas, as the group has done successfully.

For now, we can only applaud the Government for opening the doors for a rethink. And doing so quickly too, instead of letting a problem stew. A move worthy of Sun Tzu, surely.
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Old November 2nd, 2003, 03:54 PM   #13
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02/11/2003

DPM Lee explains NEL rethink

By Sharmilpal Kaur


IT WAS a different world in 1996 when the North-East Line (NEL) was being planned. The economy was booming and the population in the north-east of Singapore was supposed to grow so that there would be enough train commuters to make 250,000 trips a day. But that assumption turned out to be wrong, said Acting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. People didn't move there, and the population didn't grow. 'This was 1996 and it was a different world, so there you are,' he said yesterday.

He was asked about Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong's comment last week on how it made good sense for SMRT, which runs the North-South Line, to take over the loss-making NEL from SBS Transit. SMRT was kept out of the NEL tender because the Government wanted a second rail operator to inject some competition into the industry.

But Mr Yeo said last week that forcing competition did not make sense when it led to the duplication of high overheads. While he had defended the need for two operators in Parliament three months ago, he had also told MPs that since the two operators were listed companies, it would be left to them to decide if both lines should be operated by one or two companies.

This was a point Mr Lee reiterated. He said the solution had to be one the two listed companies and their shareholders were happy with. He added: 'If it turns out you can't sustain two operators, then the logical thing to do is to have one.' He pointed out that there was no competition between the two operators in the first place. 'If you travel from Punggol to HarbourFront, that's one trip. How does that compete with a trip from Jurong to Changi? It is two different things.'

Speaking to reporters after launching this year's Clean and Green Week campaign, Mr Lee said: 'In retrospect, I think we should have been less optimistic about the potential of competition between the two operators. It could also have been that at the time, we were thinking of building more trains faster. And if we had lots and lots of trains...we could conceivably have two operators.'

Just 170,000 trips are made on the NEL every day since the trains started running in June. The line is expected to be profitable only in 2005, analysts have said. SBS is expected to lose up to $35 million in the first year of NEL operations.

Singaporeans have been weighing in on whether or not SMRT should take over the NEL. Transport analysts said it would be a step backwards in the Government's pro-competition drive. But MPs and commuters are for the more experienced operator, SMRT, taking over. They think riders will benefit from these economies of scale.

SMRT has refused to comment on whether it wants to take over the NEL. Its chief executive, Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, said last week that SBS should 'make me an offer I can't refuse'. Yesterday, Mr Lee had a rejoinder for her. He said: 'I read how the SMRT CEO said, 'Ask SBS to make me an offer I can't refuse'. If I were SBS, I would ask SMRT to make me an offer I can't refuse either.'
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Old November 4th, 2003, 08:41 AM   #14
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Quote:
In the case of the NEL, there was no real competition to begin with. As MP Charles Chong (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who was among the most vocal critics of SBS Transit's handling of the NEL, put it: 'If you live in the North-east, there's the NEL, and there's still only the NEL.'
Exactly what's need to be said... I feel that if SBS Transit were to sell the NEL to SMRT, SMRT in turn should sell TIBS to SBS Transit (although I WILL protest to the latter move :P ) This will allow some REAL competition to take place (bus vs. trains ) and the problem of lack of competition will be resolved forever. Commuters in turn will benefit from this move as the two companies are forced to lower their prices and improve frequencies to compete for customers.

The current situation is really mostly anti-competive. SMRT runs NS and EW lines and its subsidary TIBS provides bus services in the northern and northwestern areas. SBS Transit on the other hand runs all the other bus services and also runs the NE line. As a result, there is no compatible TIBS service to compete with the NS lines. The only "competition" is between SMRT's EW line and SBS Transits bus services on the EW corridors. But this is restricted by the PTC as it regulates the bus services.

Last edited by TropicalSQ744; November 4th, 2003 at 10:36 AM.
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Old November 4th, 2003, 10:21 AM   #15
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Oh I will be MORE then glad to see TIBS dissapearing in the hands of SBS!!! I simply dislike those yellow buses and lousy seats!

Its funny that it took everyone so long to realise there isnt competition. In the first place, if you are going to territorise the two bus companies, then what the freak is going to encourage competition? Even when they finally realised there is basically ZERO connectivity between the north and the east, where the two companies happen to dominate, they have to allow one route for each company so as to be "fair". What a joke!!
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Old November 4th, 2003, 11:54 AM   #16
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Originally posted by huaiwei

Oh I will be MORE then glad to see TIBS dissapearing in the hands of SBS!!! I simply dislike those yellow buses and lousy seats!

Its funny that it took everyone so long to realise there isnt competition. In the first place, if you are going to territorise the two bus companies, then what the freak is going to encourage competition? Even when they finally realised there is basically ZERO connectivity between the north and the east, where the two companies happen to dominate, they have to allow one route for each company so as to be "fair". What a joke!!
Took so long realise? I guess so and I guess not. Singaporeans are a bunch of trusting people, meaning, they'll rather leave trivial matters to the Government to decide. It's only during times of economic hardship or turmoil that they start questioning the decisions made by the Government. Like now.

In the late 90s to early 2000 when our economy was booming, people were more concerned about making the most money out of their stocks or in their businesses rather then nitpicking the policies of the Government. Now however, the situation obviously has changed dramatically. Every price hike and policy change is being scrutinised by the public. Another reasons is that Singaporeans are also less vocal in their opposition to the Government (if any, that is )

However, even if SBS Transit is allowed to buy TIBS and SMRT takes over the NEL, I seriously doubt there will ever be real competition simply because the PTC still exists. Each bus company has to gain approval from the PTC before making changes or creating a new route. This has severely reduced competition between transport providers and therefore the commuters are those who stand to lose the most.

Another silly (and idiotic) regulation by the LTA (ok for once it's not the PTC...) is that public buses are limited to only 60km/h even when they are able to travel at 90km/h+ safely. Although increasing this speed limit will not have much effect on the travelling times on most feeder or trunk services, services which travel on expressways tend to lose out.

But, oh, I forgot. There is no competition between public bus routes and trains to begin with, so I guess even increasing the speed limit won't make a difference. Afterall, we can only take one mode of transport.

Last edited by TropicalSQ744; November 4th, 2003 at 12:15 PM.
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Old November 4th, 2003, 12:29 PM   #17
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Hahaha...actually I would say that your average Singapore will only make noise when it matters one thing: their pockets. I dunt think any one gives a #$%& about competition and regulation. They just want the cheapest fares!

I dunt mince my words. I absolutely DISPISE the LTA. They have been doing alot of stupid things for a damn long time, the latest being forcing us to pay $5 for each Exlink card we buy. Just what kind of "compeition" are they suggesting? It dosent occur physically, and neither does it occur on the corporate level! Someone rightfully wrote a complain letter to the press demanding to know why is the PTC, issuer of the exlink cards, basically a subsidiary of the LTA!

Got all buses run at 60km/hr meh? Maybe TIBS buses got speed limit devices, but the last time I sat on them, they fly through the roads like they were possessed by pontianaks. I think I will boycott buses if they all go slow! In fact, I do have some form of "choice" now, for eg, with regards to how I get to school.
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Old November 4th, 2003, 04:33 PM   #18
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It's due to lack of mantainence on the speed limiting devices that allowed buses to exceed the 60km/h speed limit.
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Old November 7th, 2003, 04:25 PM   #19
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Quote:
Originally posted by TropicalSQ744

It's due to lack of mantainence on the speed limiting devices that allowed buses to exceed the 60km/h speed limit.
And every bus has that problem? I have hardly sat on a bus that goes that slow unless its a bus that is too ahead on shedule!
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Old November 21st, 2003, 10:51 AM   #20
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Originally posted by huaiwei

And every bus has that problem? I have hardly sat on a bus that goes that slow unless its a bus that is too ahead on shedule!
Maybe you're lucky.

I've been on buses that cruise at 60km/h on expressways. Other vehicles just zoom by. Very irritating.
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