Issue of overcrowding started before he took over ministry: Analysts
By Tessa Wong
SINGAPORE'S public transport system faced tremendous strain in recent years because planners failed to anticipate the surge in foreigners, and also because they took their eyes off the ball.
Transport analysts told The Straits Times yesterday that they believed outgoing Transport Minister Raymond Lim inherited the situation from predecessors at the ministry.
The public transport squeeze generated much discontent, and became a hot-button issue in the run-up to the general election this month.
Many have since speculated that Mr Lim retired from the Cabinet after serving only one term as the Transport Minister because he had failed to adequately address this discontent.
But analysts said yesterday that the problem of overcrowded buses and trains started even before Mr Lim took over the ministry in 2006.
'Certainly, his predecessors had a hand in the problems Mr Lim faced,' said industry veteran and transport consultant Bruno Wildermuth, who was closely involved in the planning of the MRT system in the 1970s.
He said the Government should have moved earlier to address capacity problems, noting that efforts to increase train frequency - such as the addition of another platform at Jurong East interchange and a review of MRT signalling systems - materialised only in recent years.
'Ever since the lines were planned and building began decades ago, planners knew that our system had capacity limitations and was not good enough for the long term. So why did we wait until now to address these problems?' he said.
One reason could have been an earlier change in leadership.
In 1996, when Mr Mah Bow Tan was Communications Minister and handled transport issues, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) released a White Paper entitled A World Class Land Transport System.
One aim was to create a denser rail network, and the LTA committed to launching one major rail project a year.
In 1999, Mr Yeo Cheow Tong succeeded Mr Mah at the helm of the ministry, which was now known as Communications and Information Technology.
Though Mr Yeo tweaked development goals, such as extending rail line targets, 'he didn't really follow Mr Mah's plan very well', said Associate Professor Lee Der Horng of the National University of Singapore.
Transport economist Michael Li of the Nanyang Business School noted that Mr Yeo had focused more on developing the air transport sector, through open-skies agreements and developing demand for services at Singapore's airport.
'Thirty years ago, the Government had the mindset of building ahead of demand for all transport modes. But it later became more cautious, introducing a more systematic approach, which could have slowed things down.
'After the 1996 White Paper was introduced, the Government became more reactive instead of proactive in urban transport development,' he said.
Some have said that the 2004 Nicoll Highway collapse during the construction of the Circle Line reinforced this cautious approach.
But a decade ago, transport planners may have also expected far slower growth in Singapore's population.
In 2000, Mr Mah as the National Development Minister projected that the population could possibly rise from 3.9 million in 2000 to 5.5 million by 2040 or 2050.
By last year, however, Singapore's population had already surpassed five million, largely because of a greater influx of foreigners over the decade.
'My feeling is that the current spike caught the Government off-guard. If it had known there would be so much more people earlier than expected, it would have planned for them,' said Associate Professor Gopinath Menon of Nanyang Technological University.
Prof Lee said that overall, the Government should have had closer coordination between ministries to prepare for the impact of the influx: 'We should have had very well-planned coordination between the National Development Ministry and the Transport Ministry. And at the statutory board level, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the LTA should have worked more hand in hand.'