It seems like it was only yesterday when the grand opening ceremony of the North-South Line was held at the Toa Payoh station. A total of 26 years has since passed, as the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system becomes an integral part of our daily life. Today, we put aside all the recent troubles of overcrowding, breakdowns and line disruptions, and take a little ride into the MRT’s past.
The Early Debates
The conceptualised idea of a rail system was proposed as early as 1967, two years after Singapore attained its independence. Studies and reviews were carried out, but more than a decade later, the public transport plan remained inconclusive. By the early eighties, intense debates regarding the proposed building of MRT erupted in the parliament.
Then-Trade and Industry Minister Dr Tony Tan suggested more emphasis to be placed on the construction of public housing instead of a mass rapid transit system, as Singapore was facing a labour shortage and rising building costs. The building of Changi Airport also took a toil on the construction resources in the previous five years between the late seventies and early eighties.
Dr Goh Keng Swee, then-Finance Minister, also objected to the rail system. He was concerned that the huge cost, estimated to be $5 billion, could drag down the country’s economy. Believing in an all-bus system instead, Dr Goh Keng Swee even invited two Harvard professors to come out with a report to support his case.
The pro-MRT camp was represented by Ong Teng Cheong, the former Minister for Communications and Labour. He argued that the MRT system would have a tremendous influence in shaping the economic growth and development of Singapore. Comparing with other cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and Marseille, Ong Teng Cheong pointed out that an efficient MRT system could also help in enhancing the image of Singapore, and increased the overall standard of living of the people.
The Final Decision
The Comprehensive Traffic Study in 1981 showed that an all-bus system in Singapore was not practical and efficient. A mass transit rail system was recommended instead. Thus, after more than 10 years of feasibility studies, the decision to build a rail-based MRT system was finally made in May 1982. Construction started shortly at Toa Payoh and Novena after a ground-breaking ceremony held at Shan Road on 22th October 1983.
A formal organisation named the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation (MRTC) was set up on 14th October 1983 to oversee all roles and responsibilities of the train network. It would later be combined with the Registry of Vehicles and Roads & Transportation Division to form the new Land Transport Authority (LTA) in 1995.
The First Lines & Stations
1. North-South (NS) Line
The first MRT line in operation, the NS Line was intended to link the city to the upcoming new residential towns of Yishun, Ang Mo Kio and Bishan. The 5-station section between Yio Chu Kang and Toa Payoh was officially opened on 7th November 1987, before extended to Raffles Place a month later. The Yishun and Marina Bay stations were added by the end of 1990. The second phase of the NS Line development was completed in February 1996, linking Yishun to Choa Chu Kang, and established a continuous loop to the branch line of the East-West (EW) Line.
As the NS Line was the first train line to be built in Singapore, it faced many technical and social problems. Many old buildings had to make way, businesses were affected and traffic congestion surged due to the construction works on the ground level. Beside tight schedules and constant track alignments, there were also major challenges in the building of the tunnel below the Singapore River. Due to technical issues, the location of the Newton MRT Station had to be shifted to Scotts Road, a distance away from its original plan at the Newton Circus.
Double functioning as air-raid shelters, the six MRT stations in Braddell, Newton, Somerset, Raffles Place, City Hall and Marina Bay are equipped with thick, anti-blast steel doors. Overall, the NS Line has a 44km-long track, 25 stations and seven interchanges that are also linked to the new North-East (NE) Line and Circle (CC) Line
2. East-West (EW) Line
The first section of the EW Line, consisting of two interchanges (City Hall, Raffles Place) and two stations (Tanjong Pagar, Outram Park), was officially opened on the 12th December 1987, about a month after the opening of the NS Line. Its development extended rapidly to Lakeside in the following year. By early 1990, the eastern section was also completed, linking City Hall to Tanah Merah.
The construction of the Boon Lay station, the westernmost station on the early MRT map, was nearly shelved in 1987. However, with HDB’s decision of building 25,000 new flats in the vicinity, the station was eventually opened in July 1990 to cater for the needs of the new residents as well as the workers from the industrial estates at Jurong and Tuas.
Like some of the stations at the NS Line, there are three MRT stations (Bugis, Tiong Bahru and Lavender) at the EW Line that double as Civil Defence stations. As of 2013, the EW Line remains the longest train line in Singapore, spanning almost 53km and 31 stations from Paris Ris and Changi Airport to Joo Koon.
The development of MRT, upon the completion of its initial stage in the late eighties, was then the largest public project in Singapore, costing a total of $5 billion in construction.
The Evolution of the MRT Map
The early MRT map of NS Line and EW Line consisted of 42 stations, 15 of which were underground. The three depots were based at Bishan, Ulu Pandan and Changi. The conceptualisation was introduced in late 1984, before the first finalised MRT map was released to the public three years later.
There were glaring differences in the early maps. The station codes were absent, and there was no Khatib station. Instead, a Sembawang station stood between Yishun and Yio Chu Kang. The stations of Bishan, Newton and Orchard were also listed as San Teng, Newton Circus and Orchard Boulevard respectively.
The second phase of development of NS Line initially did not include Sembawang and Kranji stations. They were later added, while Sungei Kadut was omitted instead. There is a likely possibility of the development of a new town at Sungei Kadut in the future, hence a station code (NS6) is reserved between Yew Tew (NS5) and Kranji (NS7). Likewise, the missing station code of NS12 is a likely reservation for a new housing estate named Simpang built between Sembawang (NS11) and Yishun (NS13).
There were even more changes in the EW Line. A series of MRT stations were renamed, such as Lakeside, Chinese Garden, Tanjong Pagar, Bugis and Choa Chu Kang (originally known as Corporation, Jurong Lake, Maxwell, Victoria and Bukit Panjang respectively). Queenstown station switched places with Commonwealth, whereas Dover station was unavailable at the start of the planning; it was only added in 2001. The trio of Bukit Batok, Bukit Gombak and Choa Chu Kang, initially categorised under the branch line of EW Line, became an integrated part of NS Line when the loop was completed in 1996.
In 2009, the Boon Lay Extension was completed with two additional stations (Pioneer, Joo Koon) added. A further four stations (Tuas, Tuas Crescent, Tuas West, Tuas Link), known as the Tuas West Extension, is expected to be up and running by 2016. At the eastern side of Singapore, the Changi Airport Extension was opened by 2002. Branching off at the Tanah Merah station, it consists of two new stations named Expo and Changi Airport.
The colour codes of the MRT Lines have evolved from NS Line’s red-yellow band and EW Line’s blue-green to red (NS Line), green (EW Line), purple (NE Line), orange (CC Line) and blue (DT Line). The colour grey is used to represent all the LRTs.
The Grand Opening Day
One of the first MRT trains arrived at the Bishan Depot in July 1986. A commemoration ceremony was held to mark the significant event, and was officiated by Dr Yeo Ning Hong, then-Minister for Communications and Information.
Singapore Mass Rapid Transit Limted (SMRT), the private operator of the new rail system, was established on 6th August 1987 to take over the roles and responsibilities previously held by the MRTC. As the opening date approached, hundreds of trial runs were conducted between August and October of 1987 to ensure the smooth and faultless operation.
The biggest moment finally arrived on the 7th of November 1987 when the first section of NS Line was opened at the Toa Payoh MRT Station. Likened the historical event to a new-born baby, Second Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong described it as an incredible achievement after a long and difficult 20 years.
The public response was overwhelming. Massive crowds turned up to witness the opening. Hundreds queued to experience the new ride.
The first train, carrying some 400 VIPs and guests, left Toa Payoh and reached Yio Chu Kang in a 15-minute journey. Just three weeks after the opening of the NS Line, the MRT recorded its first millionth ridership.
There was a touching moment observed on the opening day of the MRT when the boss of a construction company gave his workers, three of them Samsui women, a well-deserved day off to enjoy a ride on the new train. The Samsui women had been working painstakingly at the construction site of the Bishan station for four years.
A month later, there were more celebrations as the second section of the NS Line was successfully opened by then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. The trains made their debuts from Toa Payoh, passing by City Hall and Raffles Place, before stopping at the EW Line’s Outram Park station. By early 1988, the MRT system was deemed a success in meeting the expectations of the public. Its official opening was held by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at Raffles City on 12th March 1988.
The TransitLink was established at the start of 1989 by SMRT, SBS (Singapore Bus Service) and TIBS (Trans-Island Bus Services) in an effort to develop an integrated bus-rail public transport system. Commuters could enjoy the convenience of the same ticketing system for both buses and MRT by November 1990. TransitLink would last for 12 years before it got replaced by the contactless Ez-link card system in April 2002.
The Current & Future Lines
3. North-East (NE) Line
Spanning 20km and comprising 16 stations, the $5-billion NE Line is Singapore’s third mass rapid transit line. The idea of an additional NE Line was mooted in the mid-nineties, when the Woodlands Extension was being added to the NS Line. The construction, however, only began in 1997 due to the immaturity of the northeastern new towns of Sengkang and Punggol.
Fully underground, automated and driverless, the NE Line was opened in June 2003, with the exception of Buangkok (opened in 2006) and Woodleigh (2011) stations.
4. Circle (CC) Line
When it was completed in 2011, the CC Line was Singapore’s longest underground automated MRT system. Stretching nearly 36km in length and consisting of 31 stations (except Bukit Brown), it costs an initial estimation of $6.7 billion in construction. Till date, it has seven interchanges at Harbourfront, Buona Vista, Bishan, Paya Lebar, Serangoon, Dhoby Ghaut and Marina Bay.
Like the NE Line, the CC Line was first proposed in the nineties, and was originally named as Marina Line. Its stations, under the Art Program, are given different designs to bring out the unique identities and historical backgrounds of the vicinities where the stations are located. One of its stations, the Bras Basah MRT Station, is the deepest station in Singapore, built at a depth of 35m below ground level.
When the Farrer Road MRT Station was opened in October 2011, there was confusion over the similarity in its name with NE Line’s Farrer Park MRT Station, despite both stations being 5km apart.
5. Downtown (DT) Line
Upon its completion in 2017, the 42km-long DT Line will overtake the CC Line as the longest underground and automated train line. There are three stages of DT Line scheduled, comprising of a total of 34 stations between Expo and Bukit Panjang, passing through new stations such as Tampines West, Kaki Bukit, Ubi, Bendemeer, Fort Canning, Sixth Avenue and Beauty World.
The project of DT Line was first announced in mid-2005, with an estimated cost of $18 billion. One of its functions is to take over some of the traffic loads at the Dhoby Ghaut and Raffles Place interchanges. The second stage of the DT Line, also known as the Bukit Timah Line, aims to provide convenience to the commuters travelling between the northwestern residential estates and the city areas.
One of DT Line’s stations, the Tan Kah Kee MRT Station, struck up a controversy in 2008. Originally planned to be named Duchess MRT Station, LTA later suggested its renaming to Watten or Kah Kee after the students from the nearby Hwa Chong Institution petitioned the station to be named Hwa Chong. In the end, the name Tan Kah Kee was chosen as a tribute to the founder of the institution. It was the first time in Singapore MRT’s history that the full name of a person was used for the name of a station.
6. Thomson (TS) Line
First announced in early 2008, a 30km underground system called the Thomson Line will be built and completed by 2019. Projected to cost $18 billion, the line will cut through the central part of Singapore, connecting to residential areas at Springleaf, Upper Thomson, Mayflower, Sin Ming and Kim Seng.
The TS Line is also expected to be integrated with the Rapid Transit System (RTS), a link between Singapore and Johor Bahru.
7. Eastern Region (ER) Line
The ER Line is intended for the residents living in the southeastern part of Singapore. Scheduled to be completed by 2020, it will be 21km long, have 12 stations and run through the likes of Changi, Upper East Coast, Bedok South, Siglap, Marine Parade and Tanjong Rhu.
8. Jurong Region (JR) Line
The JR Line will extend into the heart of the western side of Singapore, connecting Tengah, Jurong West, Jurong East, Choa Chu Kang and West Coast together. It will be in operation by 2025.
9. Cross-Island (CR) Line
The CR Line will provide an alternative route for the commuters of EW Line, and is not expected to be ready before 2030.
Today, the current rail system covers a total of 178km. LTA targets to increase the distance to 360km by 2030. By then, the MRT network will be expected to serve at least double of the 2-million daily ridership today.
The Light Rapid Transit (LRT)
Developed to ease the traffic conditions within a new town, the LRT system aims to replace the feeder bus services. The project, however, did not produce stellar results as compared to the MRT system. Restricted to only Bukit Panjang, Sengkang and Punggol today, there is little indication that more LRT systems will be built in the future.
The first LRT network was launched at Bukit Panjang in November 1999, after a three-year construction and a cost of $285 million, whereas Sengkang and Punggol LRT were opened in stages between 2003 and 2007. The total length of the tracks is approximately 29km.
The Incidents Over the Years
In November 1989, the MRTC announced that the consumption of chewing gums was prohibited in MRT trains and stations. The ban was implemented after several littering and vandalising of MRT doors and seats. In some worse cases, train services were disrupted by spent gums. The ban of chewing gum was extended to nationwide by early 1992. On the other hand, food and drinks had been prohibited in MRT premises since 1987.
In the early morning of 5th August 1993, an east-bound train carrying a full load of 1,800 commuters failed to stop in time, resulting in a collision with a stationary train at Clementi MRT Station. There were as many as 156 injuries reported in this first ever accident in the history of MRT. Investigations were immediately carried out and oil spill was found to be the main cause of the unfortunate accident.
A plot to bomb Yishun MRT Station in December 2001 was foiled when several suspects belong to terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were caught planning an attack on the embassies in Singapore.
On 3rd March 2003, a 23-year-old driver lost control of his Mercedes Benz along Lentor Avenue, crashing through the fence and landing onto the tracks. A northbound train could not stop in time, but slowed down sufficiently to avoid a major collision. There were some injuries reported and a three-hour disruption in service.
A tragedy occurred at Nicoll Highway in the afternoon of 20th April 2004. A retaining wall gave way, resulting in the collapse of a section of the road. Several natural gas pipes were ruptured, causing explosions and fire. Four men working at the site died, with a further three injured. The construction of the CC Line was halted for a year due to the investigations.
Several dissatisfied residents at Buangkok captured the attention of public and media after displaying eight paper-cut elephants figures outside Buangkok MRT Station on 27th August 2005, signifying the unused station as a white elephant. They were given stern warnings by the police after investigations, and the Buangkok station was later opened in January 2006.
A commuter named Tan Jee Suan, 46, committed suicide at the Chinese Garden MRT Station in the evening of 18th October 2006. Apparently depressed over financial problems, he jumped onto the tracks and was instantly killed by the approaching train. Sympathetic towards the plight of his family, the public donated more than $500,000 to Tan Jee Suan’s widow and two teenage sons.
A maintenance works train broke down on the morning of 21st January 2008, causing a seven-hour disruption in the services between Pasir Ris and Tanah Merah. More than 57,000 commuters were affected. SMRT was subsequently fined $387,176 by LTA.
The security of the SMRT depots at Changi and Bishan was twice breached in May 2010 and October 2011, resulting in trains being vandalised with graffiti. The first vandalism was committed by a Swiss expatriate Oliver Fricker, 32, and his British accomplice, Dane Alexander Lloyd. After the repeated incident of vandalism, SMRT was fined a maximum of $50,000 by LTA.
The MRT network suffered its worst ever breakdowns on the 15th and 17th of December 2011. Over 200,000 commuters were affected by the disruption in the NS Line that totaled more than 12 hours. Nearly 1,000 passengers were stranded in the tunnels between City Hall and Dhoby Ghaut. SMRT was fined a record $2 million by LTA.
Two workers died and eight more injured on 18th July 2012 when a 4m-tall scaffolding gave way at the constructions site of the DT Line’s Bugis Station.
Over the years, there were also many cases of suicides and accidents at several MRT stations where the victims were killed or seriously injured by the approaching trains.
The MRT Trivia: Captain SMRT
Do you know that SMRT has a mascot of its own?
It is simply known as Captain SMRT. The superhero, donned in red and possibly the only second superhero in Singapore after VR Man (created by the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) in 1998), was created to promote the safe behaviour of commuters and the train system’s safety measures, such as the emergency exits.
The MRT Trivia: Urban Legends
Many members of the public were skeptical when the MRT was first built. There was disbelief that long underground tunnels could be constructed in a small island like Singapore. Coupled with superstitions, urban legends of the MRT began to spread among Singaporeans. Fortunately, the rumours subsided when people started to realise the benefits and convenience provided by the new transport network.
Strong rumours surfaced in the eighties that then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew consulted Venerable Hong Chuan regarding the construction of the MRT system in Singapore. The highly respected monk warned that the tunnels would destroy the country’s good fengshui. To rectify the problem, every citizen had to carry a bagua (octagon diagram) with them. Hence, the new $1 coin with a octagon shape was born. It was “coincidentally” launched in September 1987, two months before the NS Line’s grand opening at Toa Payoh.
Ghosts in the Tunnels
When the NS Line was first built, there were persistent rumours of supernatural sightings inside the new tunnels at Bishan and Novena, both of which were former cemetery sites. Stories of maintenance personnel encountering ghostly coffin bearers while doing their checks spread like wild fires. Another popular tale was the haunting of the last train at Bishan, where a lone passenger was terrified by a ghastly spirit of a girl who, after boarding the train, removed her head and calmly placed it on the empty seat.
A Disneyland at Lentor
The section between the stations of Yio Chu Kang and Khatib has the longest tracks among all train lines in Singapore. This led to speculations in the late nineties and early 2000s that a MRT station, possibly named Lentor, might be reserved for the construction of a Disneyland along Lentor Avenue, where there was a large piece of undeveloped forested land. The plan, however, did not materialise. Disney opened their theme park in Hong Kong (in 2005) instead.
Published: 23 July 2013
Updated: 24 September 2013