The Cross Island Line: Testing Singapore’s green ambitions

The garden city is building up its Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system to enhance the public transport network and encourage Singaporeans to go car-lite but there will be costs.

By Maegan Liew

Singapore’s eighth Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line is set to be its most ambitious one yet. When completed in 2030, the 50km Cross Island Line (CRL) will be the city state’s longest fully underground line.

The CRL will connect the western, north-eastern and eastern parts of Singapore, doubling the Republic’s rail network to 360km. By 2030, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) estimates that the city state will boast a rail density that surpasses that of Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Half of the 30-plus stations on the CRL are interchange stations that have connections to other lines. This means that all of Singapore’s existing radial MRT lines will be connected by the CRL.

The CRL will bring the city state closer to its ‘car-lite’ dream

By providing commuters with more travel routes to their destinations, the Singaporean MRT system will be more resilient. The line will redistribute and relieve passenger loads on other lines, shortening journey times. Disruptions will be mitigated as commuters will be able to switch to other lines in the network more easily.

The line will support new economic hubs outside the central business district, providing a seamless connection to employment centres such as the Jurong Lake District and Punggol Digital District. It will also make recreational spaces such as the Changi Beach Park more accessible to Singaporeans using public transport.

With an estimated initial daily ridership of 600,000, which will eventually reach one million, the CRL is set to be the country’s most used rail line – and a stepping stone for the realisation of a car-lite Singapore.

The benefits of the CRL are accompanied by costs, and these costs are not all monetary

Despite the benefits it promises to bring, the project has been caught up in a controversial environmental debate.

The ongoing discussion centres on the two possible alignments of the CRL’s middle section. This section is set to cut through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve – Singapore’s largest nature reserve.

The original proposed alignment of the CRL would feature a 4km stretch that runs for 2km under the nature reserve. This prompted environmentalists in Singapore to call for an alternative route that would go around the nature reserve, reducing the damage on its thriving ecosystem.

The detour would add 5km to the route and an additional six minutes to commute times. The LTA also asserted that the land and home acquisitions necessary for the line to skirt the nature reserve would impact Singaporean families. The extra construction work required for longer tunnels and extra ventilation facilities will incur an extra expense of S$2 billion (US$1.48 billion).

But it would preserve Singapore’s largest green lung and most important nature reserve. Less than 0.5% of Singapore’s original primary forest cover is left. The Central Catchment Nature Reserve houses the largest primary lowland rainforest patch in Singapore. The nature reserve also boasts the city state’s last remaining primary freshwater swamp forest.

Home to over 413 species of plants, 218 species of birds, 30 mammals and 24 freshwater fish species, the Central Catchment Nature Reserve will cost S$2 billion to protect – but the government and people of Singapore are undecided on whether it is worth the cost. A decision has yet to be made on which of the two alignment options the CRL will pursue.

How much is Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve worth?

The LTA’s study of the two alignment options included a robust two-phase Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). According to the LTA, this is the first time an EIA of this scale has been carried out for a rail development project.  

Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve
Photo Credit: Lip Kee/Flickr

However, observers point out that a systematic cost-benefit analysis of the two options is still lacking. Economist Eustan Quah, a Professor at the Nanyang Technological University, argues that judging the two options based on how much additional cost is required considers the cost effectiveness but not the cost benefit.

A concept that could provide a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis is ecosystem services. It involves assigning a monetary value to the otherwise free services provided by an ecosystem, such as climate regulation and water purification. This monetary value is determined by market prices for natural resources and the financial worth in damage or costs avoided.

CRL represents a litmus test for Singapore’s transformation into a City in a Garden

Since the 1960s, the Republic has embarked on a transformation to become a Garden City by seeking sustainable development designed to foster cleanliness and reduce environmental impact. In recent years, the island nation has set its sights on a new vision: the City in a Garden.

It represents Singapore’s transition from greenery provision to the development of a sustainable urban ecosystem and a closer affinity with nature in the city. It means safeguarding the city state’s nature reserves as refugia of biodiversity.

An enhanced public transport network can propel Singapore towards a car-lite city. But if the drive towards this dream rests on the damage of Singapore’s most important nature reserve, the CRL will struggle to truly bring about a greener city state.

A crossroad lies ahead for Singapore: it could persist in its path as a Garden City, or it could push towards the City in a Garden it envisions. So what will it be, Singapore?