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Khaw Boon Wan: Replacing BPLRT with a bus-only transport system is not feasible

Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan has said that replacing the Bukit Panjang LRT (BPLRT) with a bus-only transport system is not a feasible option as the road network in Bukit Panjang will not be able to cope.

This is in response to the question by Mr Liang Eng Hwa, MP for Hollang-Bukit Timah GRC, who asked the Minister for Transport how will the Ministry fix the problem-prone Bukit Panjang LRT system and whether there are plans to overhaul the entire system or to replace it with a more reliable transport mode to better serve the residents living there.

The above issue came under the spotlight after a blog post posted by Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) by its managing director Lee Ling Wee, wrote that the company and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) are jointly reviewing the future of the 10.5km, 14-station BPLRT and one of the options is to replace the whole system with bus-only transport system.

The system was Singapore’s first LRT network in 1999 which means that it comes closer to the near end of its 20-year lifespan in 2019.

Mr Khaw said that LRT systems are typically deployed for straight-forward point-to-point connections on flat terrain. Typical examples include the Sentosa Express and skytrains in airports to connect between terminal buildings.

He said that the decision to implement the BPLRT required shoe-horning an LRT system into a built-up town. This has posed significant engineering challenges, requiring the LRT to make sharp bends and over undulating terrain. The BPLRT’s reliability has therefore been unsatisfactory, despite significant efforts by LTA, SMRT and the train manufacturer, Bombardier.

“Fixing the problem requires an understanding of the technical challenges of the BPLRT,” Mr Khaw said, adding that there are two key challenges.

The first is the current design of the power rail. It requires three points of contact simultaneously with the trains’ collector shoes.  Any misalignment could trigger a power trip or even dislodge the collector shoes, causing a disruption. The sharp bends and undulating terrain further contribute to this problem. 60% of the major disruptions in the past three years were caused by power trips or dislodged collector shoes.

The second is that the current track layout in the vicinity of Bukit Panjang Station and the LRT service routing require trains leaving Bukit Panjang Station to constantly switch tracks.  This has made the switch point a critical vulnerability.

Mr Khaw also noted that many key components, including the trains, power rail and the signalling system, are coming to the end of their design lives in about four to five years’ time. They will have to be replaced as the system was Singapore’s first LRT network in 1999 which means that it comes closer to the near end of its 20-year lifespan in 2019.

“The study is on-going. Our likely approach comprises two key elements,” he said.

First, they are studying a re-design of Bukit Panjang Station, its track layout and the BPLRT routing to remove the need to constantly switch tracks, and to smoothen some parts of the alignment. Second, they are sourcing for new trains, power rail, signalling system and various other critical components to replace our first-generation assets, which will further improve reliability and performance.