10 Facts About LRT in S’pore, The Little Cousin of MRT That Breaks Down as Much as MRT

Image: Sam's Studio / Shutterstock.com & Tom Wang / Shutterstock.com

It’s very upsetting to see the frequent breakdowns of our transport system in recent years. After all, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) was ranked second on the list of ‘Things to Do in Singapore’ on TripAdvisor.

In my experience, I’ve only had probably less than 6 times when I was trapped in a train. Compared to being stuck in the train for an hour long, I’ve had better encounters, thus far. But there’s really nothing to rejoice since… we’re not going to wave goodbye to track faults and delays in 2018.

In today’s article, we’re on a search to find out 10 facts about LRT, the transport system that serves the residents of Bukit Panjang, Sengkang, and Punggol instead. Because everyone knows about MRT, but not about its little cousin, the LRT, right?

Let’s ride to the LRT now!

The first LRT system

We are aware that there are 3 LRT systems in Singapore – Bukit Panjang, Sengkang, and Punggol. But do you know which of the 3 is the first transit system to be in service?

If you’ve guessed Bukit Panjang, (*ding dong dang*) you’re right! The first LRT system is the Bukit Panjang LRT, officially launched in November 1999 by the then Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Tony Tan. Gosh, it’s probably younger than some of us but already facing ‘health’ problems. Sigh.

But anyway, plans to build the LRT system started way earlier, in 1991, before I was even conceived.

Study tour to France & Germany in 1995

The then Communications Minister Mah Bow Tan, with a delegation from Singapore, had the privilege to go on a work trip to France and Germany on 6 February 1995. Their agenda was to learn more about the implementation of LRT systems.

Here’s the timeline:

7 February – The team first studied the SK system in France. It was after this visit that Mah raised the possibility of building LRT stops at the void decks of HDB flats.

8 February – The delegation observed another French system, the VAL. The team was impressed with how this system, which had a capacity of up to 140 people, was able to integrate well with other modes of transportation.

9 February – The group moved on and visited Dortmund University in Germany to observe the H-Bahn LRT system. This was in anticipation of the implementation of the Buona Vista LRT then (but we all know it did not get the go-ahead because it was not found to be economically viable).

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They dabao-ed bags of pretzels (maybe?) and returned to sunny Singapore on 10 February.

S$285-million contract

Yes, on 12 April 1996, LTA signed a whopping S$285-million contract for the establishment of Bukit Panjang LRT system, with companies including Keppel Corporation (Singapore).

Remember, that was in 1996, when chicken rice cost $1.50. Based on today’s rate, it could well be over $400 million.

SMRT the chosen one

On 5 August 1997, during the 10th-anniversary celebrations of Singapore MRT, Mah announced that SMRT would be the chosen one for the operations of Bukit Panjang LRT system when it was completed.

It was selected over other transport operators like Singapore Bus Services (SBS) and Trans-Island Bus Services (TIBS) because of its, impeccable, vast, and flawless experience with operating the MRT system. Remember, back then, it was mere SMRT, SBS and TIBS.

But it seems like their experience is proving otherwise now.

SMRT does not operate Sengkang and Punggol LRT

So don’t complain to the wrong company when it breaks down.

The one you should be giving valuable feedback to when Sengkang or Punggol LRT system breaks down (choy!) is our dear SBS Transit.

Oh yeah, while Bukit Panjang LRT is operated by SMRT, the other two are operated by SBS Transit.

Bukit Panjang LRT system jinxed on the day of launch

Reading this now isn’t surprising (it would be surprising if it doesn’t break down), but back then, it was.

On 6 November 1999, the day of its launch, the system was already suffering from issues.

There were reports of train delays of up to 40 minutes (Hey, that’s worse than some of the delays we’re going through now!) and malfunctioning of ticketing machines due to problems with the computer software.

Commuters were also in for a 6D cinemotion experience with bumpy rides along certain stretches of rail, and doors opening slightly while the trains were moving.

(What an unconventional way of traveling!)

First death case 2 months after launch

The first case of fatality for the system occurred on 15 January 2000, approximately 2 months after its official launch date in November 1999.

A drunk man was killed at Jelapang Station after he attempted to walk across the LRT tracks to the other platform.

Another death case in 2017 involving…

Alcohol.

Just last March, a 43-year-old drunk man was found dead at Fajar station after he fell onto the tracks and was hit by an off-service train seven minutes later. As if that wasn’t brutal enough, a second train pulled into the station, running Mr. Ang over for the second time.

He suffered these injuries: open skull fracture, multiple rib fractures and hip, arm and leg fractures. He also had a 15cm-wide wound running from his neck to his groin.

More glitches ever since

The Bukit Panjang LRT system continued its service despite the curse since its opening. It had more than 150 incidents from 1999 to 2012.

These incidents include the stalling of trains where commuters having to walk along elevated tracks; doors opening while trains were moving; and even wheels falling off.

The system also had the most number of glitches per km of track, among all the rail projects in operation. In 2016, the door of a train came loose while on the move, allegedly due to a design flaw.

So yes, MRT’s cousin, LRT, is definitely not adopted. They’re really relatives, really: just now only residents in Bukit Panjang, Sengkang and Punggol would know.

Transfer of ownership of all rail assets to the Government

Sengkang LRT, Punggol LRT, alongside the North-East Line (NEL), has been under the New Rail Financing Framework since 1 April 2018.

This means that SBS Transit will only be granted a 15-year license to operate the lines until 31 March 2033, down from the 30 to 40 years period previously.

With that said, LTA will pay SBS Transit S$28.8 million, the estimated value of the assets as part of the transition.

According to the LTA, this framework will ensure that the rail operators are relieved of expenditure and can “focus on their core role of operating and maintaining the rail network”.

Celeste believes that life is a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. She's working towards that one-way ticket.