Oct 31, 2010
Rail lessons from Hong Kong
An unused fare-gate at the Bishan Circle Line station leads to a blank wall separating the station from Junction 8 mall. This is just one example of poor integration between MRT stations and surrounding properties in Singapore. -- ST PHOTO: TED CHEN
Hong Kong's mass rapid transit system has long been cited as a gold standard.
Folk who have lived and worked in Hong Kong, as well as visitors, have commented that the metro system there is well connected to buildings and attractions, easy to navigate, and on the whole user-friendly.
SMRT boss Saw Phaik Hwa had said so herself in an interview with this paper in 2004, wistfully adding Singapore's network should be as well connected.
What makes Hong Kong's system tick? The successful recipe apparently boils down to a rather unconventional practice.
Hong Kong's MTR Corp, which builds the territory's metro network, is also given rights to develop land around stations. The company - once government-owned but now publicly listed - uses proceeds from its property activities to fund its rail infrastructure projects.
Mr Chew Tai Chong, MTR's projects director, pointed out that the model has meant that the cost of building the rail infrastructure is not borne by the taxpayers alone.
The business model has also facilitated unmatched access for people who live, work and play near train stations because often, the rail builder and the developer of properties near the stations are one and the same.
Mr Chew said the recipe means urban development - and in the case of older districts, redevelopment - and rail projects are planned and executed in unison from start to finish.
This has led to successful implementation of transit-oriented developments - a bit of transport parlance used to describe districts where residential and commercial developments are designed to maximise access to public transport.
'New towns have been developed successfully around stations along the Tseung Kwan O Line,' said Mr Chew, citing an example. 'The population in the area has increased dramatically since the line was opened in 2002.'
Newer stations which are interwoven with major housing estates or shopping complexes include
Tsing Yi station, which is built next to the massive Maritime Square shopping mall and directly underneath the Tierra Verde condo-minium project. Both developments were undertaken by MTR.
Mr Chew, previously a Singapore Land Transport Authority (LTA) senior director, was speaking at the just-concluded World Urban Transit Conference, which was held in Singapore.
The 58-year-old left the LTA in 2003 to work for a private-sector company in London on a railway modernisation programme. He left to join MTR last year, and now oversees five new rail projects that will be completed in the next 10 years.
In Singapore, the LTA builds MRT lines but leaves the Urban Redevelopment Authority to sell land parcels around stations.
Although the Government eventually recoups what it has invested in the rail infrastructure this way (often more), plots of land next to stations often lay idle for a long time. For instance, the Ion Orchard mall was built some 20 years after Orchard MRT station opened.
And there are still vast empty plots around the Jurong East interchange, which is part of a line built in the late 1980s.
Industry watchers said property developers were also hesitant to build too near completed stations, in case works affected the line.
But things have improved, partly because the LTA now makes provisions for future development near major stations. Serangoon interchange is one case in point. It took only seven years for the Nex mega-mall in Serangoon Central to be up after the North-East Line opened. This is because some underground structural works had already been done when the station was built.
The Sunday Times understands that the Downtown Line now being built will also have provisions to accommodate a massive underground mall; and that it will one day be possible to walk from the Bugis station interchange to the City Hall interchange underground, without having to come above ground.
However, this connectivity may not be ready when the Bugis stretch of the Downtown Line opens in 2013 because the pedestrian link and the mall are unlikely to be built by the LTA.
Hong Kong's way offers many lessons to planners here. As Ms Saw pointed out, Buona Vista station could have had an underground connection to Holland Village or Ghim Moh.
There are other more recent examples of poor integration. The Circle Line's Stadium station is up and running - but the Sports Hub it will serve will be up only in four years' time.
Then there is the case of a fare-gate at the Bishan Circle Line station which leads to a blank wall separating it and Junction 8 mall.
Mr Chew pointed out that the Hong Kong formula that has contributed to the territory's high public transport ridership (close to 90 per cent of all trips) has to do with high community involvement too.
'Communities are consulted about the railway alignment and locations of station entrances,' he noted.
Hong Kong train stations also offer value-added services such as Internet connectivity and Wi-Fi.
Nevertheless, Mr Chew said Singapore's rail development remains the envy of many countries. By 2020, the Republic will have 280km of metro lines. Hong Kong, which is building five new lines now, will also have the same network length by then.
But Hong Kong has eight million people, whereas Singapore has five million.
The Republic's rail network is more dense compared with that of the territory.
Touching on sustainable railway development, Mr Chew said it is becoming increasingly important to examine how rail construction impacts society and the environment as cities rush to build or expand networks.
As rail infrastructure involves using enormous amounts of resources such as concrete and steel, the design, depth and size of stations will have to be considered carefully so as to minimise the carbon footprint.
Station designs should be made flexible so that platforms can be expanded to accommodate longer trains should demand grow.
Trains should be re-used, or be made more recyclable.
Mr Chew noted that these strategies are not only environmentally sound; they are financially prudent too.
Meanwhile, the rail-property business model has also allowed train services in Hong Kong to run without fare increases for more than a decade. The first fare hike in 13 years was granted last year.