Ministry of Transport decides to run Cross Island Line under Central Catchment Nature Reserve despite risk of damaging pristine forest habitats

The Ministry of Transport has announced yesterday that it will run Cross Island Line (CRL) under Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR) instead of skirting round the nature reserve to prevent possible damage to the existing ecology.

The CRL was announced back in 2013 as a new 50km long train line that to “improve the connectivity, accessibility and coverage for the rail network” in Singapore. It is targeted to be completed by 2030.

Following the announcement, the Nature Society published a position paper detailing the potential damage that construction of the line would have on the CCNR and proposed an alternative route that cuts southwards via Lornie Road around the reserve.

When the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the first phase of the project was released in 2016, the assessment projected a “mainly moderate” impact if mitigation measures were taken.

In response to the announcement, nature groups rallied to ask for more information on the EIA, as they worried about the impact this project would have on Singapore’s last remaining primary forest.

MOT then did not make any decision but decided to go ahead with the second phase of the EIA.

The second phase of the EIA was released in Sept this year and LTA said that the report found that environmental impact of both proposed routes for the CRL near the CCNR “feasible” and that with the “comprehensive” mitigation and monitoring plants, the residual impacts can be “adequately managed”.

Four key considerations by MOT to favor cutting through nature reserve

Speaking to media yesterday (4 Dec), the ministry explained that it came to its decision in view of a few considerations which might seem questionable to those cynical.

First, it claimed that the direct alignment will result in the total travel time becoming six minutes shorter than the skirting option due to the longer travelling distance. Nature Society in its 2013 position paper on the CRL, stated that the additional time would be 4 minutes instead, if its proposed route is adopted.

MOT also claimed that fares will also be about 15 per cent lower per trip on average as the route is shorter and more direct, however, it is unknown if the cost-saving will be passed to commuters.

Construction cost is said to be $2 billion lower because it does not need to acquire property and land. But that’s still an estimate, just like how the government always says it is losing money but end up with a surplus for the financial year.

The ministry also claimed the direct route will be more environmentally friendly in the long run, as it “has lower energy consumption” without noting how much more energy would it take for the trains to up the sloping rails from 70 metres to 40 metres and not to mention ventilation, escape shaft and etc.

Minister Khaw: Impact on flora and fauna in CCNR can almost be completely eliminated

Following the announcement, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan posted on his Facebook page, saying:

The Central Catchment Nature Reserve is a special part of Singapore. That is why we agonise over the alignment of the Cross Island Line (CRL). If we skirt round the Nature Reserve, it will cost taxpayers and commuters dearly. If we cross it, the concern is the impact on the flora and fauna. We consulted widely and deeply. Eventually, we decided to cross it, but dive deep under the Nature Reserve: 70m deep under and within solid granite rock. Normally, MRT tunnels are about 30m deep under. With CRL, we decided to go much deeper, so that any impact on the flora and fauna in the Nature Reserve can be almost completely eliminated. We also consulted international experts to make sure that our plan will work. 70m is equivalent to a 25-storey HDB block. This decision will increase the estimated project development cost by at least $20 million.

Other than building deeper as Minister Khaw mentioned, the other mitigating measures is basically to ensure that contractors are supervised by the authorities at all times.

But can the impact be completely eliminated as what the minister is saying?

“Moderate” impact of Cross Island Line project if mitigation measures are heeded

According to the 2nd EIA report, impact during the construction phase on the loss of vegetation and habitat was assessed to be “major” as the construction would involve the clearance of 1.5 ha of forested land, though 1.2 ha of which will later be replanted. MOT claims that with additional mitigation measures such as transplantation of flora and shepherding of wildlife, the residual impact will be reduced to “moderate”.

As for habitat fragmentation, the pre-mitigation impact was assessed to be “major” at the first worksite and “moderate” at the second. MOT also claimed that additional mitigation will bring down the impact at the first worksite to “moderate” but without going into details of what those measures are.

It was also assessed that construction would have a “major” impact in terms of disturbance to wildlife. Again, MOT claims that implementation of mitigation measures is said to reduce the residual impact significance to “moderate”.

In terms of aquatic habitat, it was found that the impact would be “critical” and mitigation measures such as prohibiting discharges into drains and having regular inspections as well as removing the pathway between the worksite and streams would bring that down to “negligible”.

As for the impact of the CRL during the operation phase, it was found that pre-mitigation impact to the ecology and diversity would be “major” unless additional mitigation measures are employed.

To understand what “moderate” means, refer to the table below. For example, a large impact magnitude event could be labelled as moderate if the affected resource is deemed low in importance.

Penny-wise and pound foolish

Stated in the position paper by the Nature Society, it is said that soil investigation by core boring at regular intervals along the proposed alignment will certainly have serious impact on the pristine stream system in the area. If the cost of replacing or repairing damage caused by this exercise is contemplated one would realize that the pristine forest habitats are actually priceless for it is impossible to replace them.

It is also highlighted that there is a risk of loss of tunnel pressure to the surface through faults in the granite structure during the tunneling process. A blow through would require the movement of personnel and equipment into the affected area (anywhere along the alignment) for the purpose of grouting the vent. Such an activity could be highly destructive should it occur in forested areas.

In the society’s conclusion, it wrote, “Ultimately these representations of the Nature Society measured out in non-monetary units will be laid out and compared against the engineering feasibility studies which are measured out in units of Singapore dollars. The degree to which these can be directly compared is somewhat limited and ultimately a moral judgment will be required to resolve the question of where the alignment of the CRL will finally lay.”

Straits Times veteran transport correspondent, Christopher Tan had also earlier blasted the logic behind cutting through the CCNR. Noting that the reasons provided by the MOT hold little merit when compared with the benefits of serving a larger community.”And if travelling time were such a huge concern, surely we should look to things such as speedier trains, better synchronicity between train and platform doors, and a more sophisticated signalling system?

“Admittedly, a diversion will cost more than going straight through the forest. But then again, think of the larger benefit. The higher ridership and revenue that come with a line that serves populated areas instead of an uninhabited nature reserve will pay for the higher cost over the lifetime of the line. So, let’s not be penny-wise and pound-foolish.” wrote Mr Tan in his opinion piece.

If one were to think about it, MOT’s decision to go directly under the CCNR based on the purported saving of $2 billion and risk damaging or destroying the carbon sink and natural heritage of the country, makes a mockery of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement of $100 billion funds for climate change protection measures.

Just what kind of message are we telling our next generation and businesses when we overlook the importance of preserving the environment in view of potential cost and time-saving?

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