Thursday, January 01, 2009

Public transport in Singapore

A thought has occurred to me:

There are two primary modes of public transport in Singapore - the Rapid Transit System (RTS), a.k.a. trains, and buses. Buses run on diesel, the cost of which is sensitive to the fluctuating price of oil, and trains run on electricity. Given the scarcity of petroleum and the volatility of its price, isn't it wiser to expand the train network and reduce the employment of buses in our public transport system?

With the advent of new energy technologies, it is quite likely that electricity generation in Singaporem which is almost wholly dependent on gas, could be supplemented or even replaced by solar, nuclear or even coal sources. In any case, the price of gas is considerably less volatile than that of oil and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.


skeptic said...

Don't be silly. Oil prices doesn't affect the cost of transport.

To follow your suggestion means that you have to raise the GST by 1.5% to cover the cost of switching the technology.

Are you really interested in raising the GST higher?

onelesscar said...

The obvious reply is that whereas expanding the bus network involves simply deploying more buses on already existing roads, expanding the rail network involves considerably higher spending on infrastucture. Since our public transport companies have the primary goal of making profits, they would rather avoid large expenditures on infrastructure. Besides, if oil prices rise, they can always raise fares in response. They will be allowed to, and (thanks to the high barriers to car ownership and the high cost of driving) their market is largely captive. Thus I doubt their profit margins are affected by volatile oil prices. Note, too, that SBS has been burnt by their rail investment (they claim to make a loss on the NEL).

This of course completely ignores matters to do with the 'greater social good', such as the fact that roads, and the motor vehicles that ply them, have a much more adverse impact on the environment than train lines. And also the fact that trains do not contribute to road congestion. But since when were externalities taken into account? (If they were, we would have a lot more train lines than expressways; but the situation is exactly the opposite. Why would you even notice any externalities if you're a minister who gets an annual allowance for a comfy air-conditioned bubble which you use to get everywhere?)

Fox said...


1. The cost of rail infrastructure is borne by the government. Go look up the PTC website.

2. Also, there is a formula in place to determine the maximum fare allowance. See

Technically, Raymond Lim is correct. Fare prices are not directly linked to oil prices.


Rail infrastructure has never been paid for by the transport companies. The government paid for the NEL infrastructure. Delgro pays for the maintenance and the operation of the line.

In any case, given the huge infrastructure investments, the obvious solution would be to nationalize the rail system.

onelesscar said...

OK, i stand corrected on infrastructure.

I think it makes sense to nationalize the rail system, too. I don't see much rationale for privatization. The 'competition' thing is ridiculous --- in practice there is little competition because SBS and SMRT aren't competing on the same routes for rail. You can't substitute a trip on the NEL for a trip on the east-west line, and buses tend to be poor substitutes for trains.

I find the reluctance to spend on rail a little out of character for our 'pragmatic' government. The 5km Marina Coastal Expressway will cost $5 billion. The 20km Northeast Line, which carries and will continue to carry vastly more commuters than the expressway can, cost $4.6 billion. Even with today's higher construction costs, it seems one could have used that money to substantially extend the rail network in other areas, rather than spend that amount of money on something that will save a much smaller number of people a few minutes of travelling time.

Fox said...


Actually, the Singapore government is building more MRT lines. See

In this respect, I believe that the government's plans should be applauded.

onelesscar said...

Yes, of course I know about the new lines. My gripe is that they invariably build expressways ahead of demand (just take the SLE, TPE, and KPE to see what i mean), but they only build train lines long after the demand is already there. The public transport situation for places like Bukit Panjang/Bukit Timah has long cried out for a train line; as a resident of the Northeast, I had to endure bus commutes of >1 hour for most of my life, even to 'central' areas, before they finally built the NEL. The train lines they decided to build only recently are way overdue, while (I would argue) many expressways they had built long before are not. Furthermore, a train line has a much higher throughput than an expressway, so it really is a more 'efficient' way of moving people if the objective is to move a large mass of people at a reasonable speed. By building expressways ahead of demand but train lines behind demand, the authorities signal that they value faster travel for a small, rich group of people over mid-speed travel for a much larger number of relatively poorer people.

Of course, it's great that they are finally extending the rail network, but they had chances to do so instead of building more expressways before, and they chose to build expressways.

Fox said...

It's more of a matter of planning time. Perhaps it is easier to project usage of roads than rail?

Roads are easier to build. Railway tracks aren't. Also, MRT have to extend into the heart of housing estates in order to be useful; expressways don't.