LAND is a precious commodity in Singapore. There is only so much space to build and develop on the island. And with the world’s third highest population density behind only Macau and Monaco, the pressure to make the best use of the space available is intense.

Roads take up 15% of all of Singapore’s land, a figure the government believes is too high. Following years of quotas on new vehicle registrations, the number of private cars allowed on the city-state’s roads was frozen in 2018 to encourage more people to use public transport. All new metro construction also takes place underground.

This is continuing with work on eight new build and extension metro projects underway (see panel below), which will expand the network to 360km by the early 2030s. The goal is for 80% of Singapore’s population of more than 5.5 million people to be within a 10-minute walk of a metro station by 2030. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) is also pursuing a policy to enhance first and last mile travel options, including the steady adoption of active mobility solutions and a focus on improving walking, which is especially difficult in the city centre, by introducing more covered linkways. By 2040, the government hopes that all residents will be able to reach their nearest neighbourhood centre in 20 minutes, and that all journeys between homes and places of work will take 45 minutes or less.

Singapore’s strategy, in particular on private car ownership, is envied by public transport advocates from car-choked cities around the world. Yet even Singapore is experiencing a challenge to established patterns of public transport use following the Covid-19 pandemic. This is sparking a major rethink of how to utilise the current and future network to meet the needs and expectations of passengers.

During the plenary session at the Singapore International Transport Congress and Exhibition (SITCE) hosted by LTA and the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) in November, LTA deputy CEO, Mr Chong Kheng Chua, described the “new normal” and the shift to homeworking on two to three days per week as “the biggest challenge” facing public transport in the city state.

Around 70% of pre-pandemic peak-hour passengers have returned to trains operated by Singapore’s two metro operators, SMRT and SBS Transit (SBST). However, these passengers are not using the network in quite the same way as they did before the pandemic. In an interview at LTA’s offices, Chua told IRJ that changes in inter-regional travel from 15% of all journeys to 35% now is the most stark. Demand is now more evenly spread throughout the day.

Kevin Smith meets with LTA deputy CEO, Mr Chong Kheng Chua, at LTA’s offices.

He says this is reflective of some companies deciding to operate outside of the city centre and the emergence of numerous poly-centres, which offer a mix of housing, work and entertainment options. Flexible working also means that less people are tied to peak-time travel to offices in the city centre.

“That pattern will be more entrenched,” Chua says. “And that’s what we hope actually because intra-regional travel is far more efficient than bi-directional travel, when trains into the central business district (CBD) are packed during the morning peak, but going the other way they are relatively empty.”

LTA has made these observations from mining the reams of data that it now has at its disposal from the city’s integrated fare collection system. This in turn is helping the authority to make informed decisions on asset allocation. Chua says a more even spread of demand is beneficial to the overall network because assets such as trains can be better utilised than when serving peak-time demand from thousands of people all travelling in a single direction. This also translates to improved returns from fares because people’s needs are better served.


Automation is the key lever in this process. Singapore possesses the world’s largest driverless metro network, with all lines built since the North East Line in 2003 equipped with CBTC. Chua says reduced instances of human error, which can cause delays throughout the system, was a major justification for going driverless. “As long as you have the trains available, you are able to respond,” he says.

LTA’s increased oversight is a result of the New Rail Financing Framework (NRFF). This was initially rolled out with LTA and SBST for the Downtown Line in 2011 with NRFF Version 2 introduced for the other metro lines operated by SMRT in 2016 and SBST in 2018. The Downtown Line also transitioned to Version 2 on January 1 2022.

“The cost of the renewals is always a burden. We don’t want them to be worried about that so we have relieved the operators of that responsibility.”

LTA deputy CEO, Mr Chong Kheng Chua

The objective is to enable the government to plan the network holistically to improve rail capacity. Under the model, LTA owns the rail operating assets previously held by the public transport operators along with the rail infrastructure. LTA makes decisions on new construction, asset upgrades and replacement while the operators remain responsible for maintenance. LTA also shares revenue risk with the operators, which pay an annual licence charge for the right to use the assets and operate the lines. The licence periods are now limited to 15 years rather than 30-40 years under the previous model.

Under Version 2, LTA strengthened the profit and risk sharing mechanisms to reduce commercial volatility for the operator while calibrating the risk borne by the government. If ridership is much lower than expected and the financial performance of the operator suffers, LTA shares some of the shortfall in fare revenue and profits, as it did during the Covid-19 pandemic. Conversely if profits outperform expectations, the operator will pay an increased licence charge with these funds allocated to the Railway Sinking Fund, which is used to renew operating assets.

“The cost of the renewals is always a burden,” Chua says. “We don’t want them to be worried about that so we have relieved the operators of that responsibility. They can focus on the doing, serving the customers.

“The second part is that if we are looking at the need to make enhancements to capacity, we, the asset owner, can probably do it in a way that is more timely. If the operator is the asset owner, he may have to take into account other considerations such as costs and viability, which will slow down implementation.”

LTA has focused on six big-ticket items in its renewal strategy: CBTC signalling, third rail and replacing concrete sleepers, which Chua says have been completed. Fleet improvements, upgrades to track circuits, which act as a fall-back system, and the power supply continue. Chua says that upgrades to communications systems are also planned.

Taking on these added responsibilities was not as simple as flicking a switch. LTA had to build up a level of competence and understanding so, as the asset owner, it could adequately monitor the performance of assets and the maintenance work taking place. It also needed to make informed decisions of when and where to make specific investments in renewals, and to justify budget requests to the Ministry of Transport.

Central to this strategy was the establishment by Chua of the Rail Asset Operations and Maintenance Group (RAOMG) in 2015. Initially the group was made up of people from LTA and the operators, including existing engineers and some who had left the organisation but whom Chua felt would offer invaluable insight from their various experiences. The group was subsequently expanded to people outside the industry who “understand asset management,” according to Chua, including the consultancy Jacobs.

Ultimately the group’s work enabled LTA to secure the ISO 55001 standard for asset management with Jacobs playing a key role in ensuring compliance. “We consulted with Jacobs to help us think through who is the asset steward, who is the asset owner, and the different roles, and we organised ourselves along those lines,” Chua says. “That’s how we got the ISO certification. And once we got ourselves into a stable position, it becomes more routine.”

Chua adds that the focus now is on how LTA can optimise its work and resources, with a particular emphasis on deploying the latest technology and working processes. The introduction of the Rail Enterprise Asset Management System (Reams) by a consortium of Siemens and ST Engineering Electronics on the Downtown Line is an example of this work in practice.

Chua says at the top-down level, this process has involved looking at the network as a system of systems to optimise how they are managed and maintained. The work with Siemens and ST focuses on developing a software platform that will store and analyse data from the Downtown Line’s maintenance management system and the core asset systems such as trains, signalling, platform screen doors, power supply, track, communications and the integrated supervisory control system. The technical data collected will be combined with financial information to create decision-supporting tools for data-centric asset management, including predictive maintenance.

SMRT is using Strides, its innovation and business arm, to maximise the opportunities of digitalisation by acting as a bridge between the industry and the railway operating environment.
Photo: Shutterstock/ Duc Huy Nguyen

Reams is equipped with data analytics capabilities and expertise from Railigient, Siemens’ data analytics application suite for rail. Chua says that the idea is to identify correct information from various sources and to make recommendations for maintenance that are optimised to fit within the planning schedule, taking into account the life of particular assets and their current performance. The project has initially focused on the major systems such as signalling, rolling stock and power systems.

Ultimately Reams should facilitate predictive maintenance and renewals although this does appear a little way off. Chua says there is currently a lack of condition monitoring equipment and data loggers installed on key assets and work is now focusing on improving this reporting capability. There are also issues with aligning the reporting of data from the various collection systems in place.

“While there are certain aspirations, we also recognise that it will take a bit of time because you need a lot of data,” he says. “You need clean data.”

“Our strategy was to start with the Downtown Line because it was a new line with more sensing equipment and data available. Unfortunately, the thing we found is that with the new line, the failure rates are not that high. Sure, once you get past the bathtub curve, then you’re quite stable. So because of that, we do not have a lot of data.”

Nevertheless, work is underway to roll the strategy out on further lines, with Chua identifying the North-South East-West Line where older fleets are being replaced as an obvious target. Installation of condition monitoring equipment is underway here as well as on signalling and the power supply assets. “Slowly but surely, I think we will get there,” he says.

“It is down to a few big players and we are depending on them to perform.”

Mr Chong Kheng Chua

Having sufficient levels of skills within in-house teams is the major challenge, according to Chua. The specialists in RAOMG have played an invaluable role in helping LTA’s transition to an asset owner and in its future asset management ambitions. Yet Chua recognises that a skills shortage could impede future progress, particularly in the signalling field. While Alstom, Hitachi, Thales and Siemens are all active in Singapore, he says recent market consolidation is limiting the pool of partners that LTA and others can work with.

“It is down to a few big players and we are depending on them to perform,” Chua says. “They all have so many projects all over the world and the issue is whether they can give me enough attention, and even when they do, whether there are enough resources. We are always in touch with the senior people on the contractor’s side to make our case. But we need to make sure there is enough capability in the long-term.”

LTA has countered this by opening a CBTC Simulation Facility (CSF) for each of its metro lines. CSF offers a digital twin that simulates the actual track and train equipment on a portion of the line suitable to conduct testing, troubleshooting and training. “This has worked well,” Chua says. “We cannot be solely reliant on testing that has taken place elsewhere.”

LTA also trains its own signalling engineers to develop their capability to understand the CBTC systems in use, which Chua says are “getting more and more complex.” Another key element in LTA’s strategy is the development of the International Train Testing Centre, which will provide a dedicated railway research and testing facility, easing the strain on the operational network as the location for these tasks, and potentially speeding up the introduction of new equipment.


The operators are also enhancing their own in-house capabilities. Strides, the innovation and business arm of SMRT, is working to maximise the opportunities of digitalisation for the operator by acting as a bridge between the industry and the railway operating environment.

Mr Choon Siong Kho, deputy head of digital systems and digital business innovation at SMRT, illustrates the role Strides plays by referring to the example of a video analytics system used at one of SMRT’s stations and the impact on passenger behaviour from one of Singapore’s frequent heavy rainstorms.

“Operational dynamics is something that when we talk to various solution providers, they lack the knowledge to be able to translate technological knowledge into an operational gain,” Kho says. “That is where we partner with these folks. It is not a technology product that we are after, it is a solution.”

As well as intricate knowledge of railway operation, Strides is staffed with experts who have worked outside the industry in fields such as aerospace and for tech firms including Google, providing valuable experience of the latest technology and working practices. SMRT signed several MoUs with major technology providers including Alstom and Thales at SITCE and Kho says this reflects the operator’s changing approach to working with the industry. These agreements emphasise collaboration on key projects rather than reliance on a supplier to deliver an outcome.

“I think the whole industry is beginning to realise that a tech provider cannot change the industry on their own, and neither can an operator, as much as we want to change it,” Kho says. “But together, I think there is a lot of synergy that we are able to export.”

SMRT’s approach to digitalisation also varies to that typically adopted by others, which tends to focus on installing one or two disparate digital systems, SMRT’s strategy from around a decade ago, according to Kho.

While this might be sufficient if there are “one or two pain points,” Kho says Strides’ observations and research has shown it is not an effective way of working. Instead, the company has devised a strategy that focuses on the objectives of the national strategy and delivering improvements network-wide. This is based on the three primary areas for which Strides is responsible: iTrain, iStation and iDepot. However, Kho says it soon became apparent that there is a lot of synergy from the data generated in each of these sub-areas from which Strides is able to derive new insight. This is informing decision making, and ultimately helping to offer a more reliable and relevant service. “This is something we believe we can begin to share with other operators,” Kho says.

A functioning and comprehensive public transport network is a central pillar of Singapore’s pursuit of further economic growth and domestic development. Its approach to public transport has long been the envy of others. While other cities continue to grapple with clawing back post-Covid ridership, LTA and the city’s operators, armed with a holistic network management and development strategy, appear well placed to meet their ambitious targets for network growth and public transport use. The 45-minute city is very much within reach.

Metro project construction continues at pace

THE 13.2km Phase 3 of the Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL) from Caldecott to Gardens by the Bay opened on November 13 2022 and is the latest addition to Singapore’s steadily expanding metro network, which now stands at 231km.

The line is part of a 43km, fully underground and driverless automated metro connecting Singapore’s northern and eastern regions via the central business district. Phase 1, the 3.2km connection from Woodlands North to Woodlands South opened on January 31 2020, followed by the 14km Woodlands South - Caldecott section on August 28 2021.

Delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have impacted delivery of the 13km TEL Phase 4, the section from Gardens by the Bay to Bayshore, which is now anticipated to open in 2024. TEL Phase 5 from Bayshore to Sungei Bedock will open in 2025.

SMRT Trains was awarded a nine year contract in September 2017 to operate TEL, which is the first rail project in Singapore where the government will bear revenue risk on operations.

Also planned, with an expected completion date of 2040, is a TEL extension from Sungei Bedok to Changi Airport Terminal 5. The project will involve converting the Tanah Merah - Changi Airport section of the East-West Line (EWL) to form part of the extension.

Work is also underway on building the 2.2km Downtown Line East Coast extension (DTLe) from Expo to Sungei Bedok. Completion is expected by 2025. The extension will connect with the planned East Coast Integrated Depot, accommodating EWL, TEL and DTL trains on different levels.

The DTLe project has faced many engineering challenges due to its proximity to the Sungei Bedok river mouth and several canals, necessitating tunnelling through thick marine clay and sand and the diversion of two waterways, as well as numerous underground utilities.

Construction of the North East Line (NEL) Punggol Extension began in 2017 with the aim of lengthening the 20km NEL by 1.6km to Punggol Coast. The extension will serve a business park in the Punggol Digital District and Singapore Institute of Technology’s (SIT) new campus. Expected opening of this extension has been brought forward from 2030 to 2024.

Phase 6 of the Circle Line (CCL) will extend the 35.5km line by 4km from Marina Bay to Harbour Front, as well as completing the circular route and adding three stations. Tunnelling works are complete and opening is scheduled for 2026.

Also due to open in 2026 is the cross-border Singapore - Johur Bahru (Malaysia) Mass Rapid Transit (RTS Link), which will cross the Strait of Johor on a 25m-high bridge between Woodlands North in Singapore and Bukil Chagar in Malaysia.

Groundbreaking for the Ringgits 10bn ($US 2.3bn) project took place in January 2021. It is being designed, built, financed and maintained by a joint venture of Malaysia’s Prasarana and Singapore’s SMRT under a 30-year concession agreement. Construction in Malaysia began in 2020, and in Singapore in 2021. Once open the line is forecast to carry 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction, and passengers will be able to clear both Singapore and Malaysian customs at their point of departure. To achieve economies of scale, the RTS Link will utilise the same trains, signalling and communications systems and main maintenance facilities as Singapore’s TEL. CRRC Zhuzhou will supply rolling stock while Siemens will equip the line with CBTC and install platform screen doors under contracts awarded in May 2021.

The Jurong Region Line (JRL) will be a 24km elevated line linking National Technological University (NTU) with the Jurong Innovation Area and the future Tengah development, while also serving Jurong Lake District. The line will have 24 stations, including three interchange stations. Stage 1, the section from Choa Chu Kang to Boon Lay/Tawas with 10 stations is due to open in 2027, and Stage 2 from Tengah to Pandan Reservoir with seven stations in 2028. Stage 3, which will run from Boon Lay to Jurong Pier and Tawas to Peng Kang Hill, is slated to open in 2029. LTA has awarded a contract to Hyundai Rotem for the supply of 62 fully-automated trains, the first of which is expected to arrive in 2024.

The Cross Island Line (CRL) will be Singapore’s longest fully integrated line at 50km. Construction of the 29km Phase 1, from Aviation Park to Bright Hill with 12 stations, began in January 2023. The line will serve both residential and industrial areas and once Phase 1 opens, scheduled for 2030, it is expected to carry more than 600,000 passengers a day.

Construction work on the 15km Phase 2, from Turf City to Jurong Lake District with six underground stations including two interchanges, is expected to begin in the first half of 2023 and is scheduled to open in 2032. LTA has awarded a $S 758m tunnel design and construction contract to a joint venture of Obayashi and Shanghai Tunnel Engineering.

The 7.3km, fully underground CRL Punggol Extension will link Pasir Ris to Punggol. In January 2023 LTA awarded a contract worth $US 562m for the design and construction of Elias station and tunnels to a joint venture of CES_SDC and Chip Eng Seng Contractors, which is expected to start construction in the second quarter of 2023. Opening of the extension is likely to be in 2032.