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Rapid returns

Rapid returns 2008-05-01 Staff Writer For a period of time in the winter of 2005 commuters on Singapore's underground metro system were abuzz about something they'd been noticing on their daily rides to work. In a city whose super-efficient image is world-renown, people wanted answers: Why was the Mass Rapid

For a period of time in the winter of 2005 commuters on Singapore's underground metro system were abuzz about something they'd been noticing on their daily rides to work. In a city whose super-efficient image is world-renown, people wanted answers: Why was the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) slowing down dramatically every time it approached Serangoon station?

The answer quickly spread through online message boards: Excavation for tunnels for the new Circle Line under the existing North-East Line station had hit an unusually large body of groundwater, causing the Serangoon station to start sinking. Within a short time the station had sunk by one centimeter, and trains bound for Punggol had to pass by the station at a much slower speed.

Given that the Singapore MRT system was, and still is, in the midst of a drastic expansion, some people were made uneasy by the news. Just the previous year a similar construction accident had caused the Nicoll Highway to collapse. In that incident an accident on a tunnel being constructed for the new Circle Line caused a massive collapse that spread across six lanes of Nicoll Highway, killing four people and causing a 100 foot wide cave-in. Could a similar fate have been in store for Serangoon Station?

Three years later the sinking hasn't turned out to be an issue, and the long-planned Circle Line system should be completed next year. Much to the displeasure of some residents, the accidents along the way have caused significant delay in this opening. But given that the entire system is relatively young, with the first section opened in just 1987, the city's reliance on it isn't huge. In fact, with a daily ridership of 1.435 million people in the 2006/07 fiscal year, it is dwarfed by the 2.853 million people who used the bus network in the same period.

However the opening of the new Circle Line should change that balance. Already there are big plans for the stations which will be made into transport hubs by the opening of the new line. Serangoon is one of those stations. Granted, it's always been a significant structure. A number of bus services which used to go to the city area now terminate at the bus interchange section of the station, resulting in an increased amount of rush hour foot traffic over the years. The interior of the station is noteworthy for it's evocative artwork along the walls, done by Singapore artist Eng Joo Heng and entitled “Memories of Childhood.”

Last year, the Singapore government put the site of the station up for auction, offering a 99-year lease on 270,000 square feet above the train tracks. According to Singapore's Land Transport Authority, which is handling the government tender, bids so far have included S772 million ($572 million; €385 million) by Australia's Lend Lease Group; S750 million by Frasers Centrepoint; S702 million by a joint venture of HSBC CapitaMall Trust, NTUC Income Insurance and NTUC FairPrice; S426 million by a tie-up between City Developments, Hong Leong Holdings and TID; and S228 million by Peak Properties.

However it was Pramerica's bid of S800.9 million ($580 million, €367 million) which has come in the highest. Pramerica Asia chief executive Victoria Sharpe told Singapore's Business Times that the group is planning a full retail development on the site. She added that the asset is likely to be held by several funds managed by Pramerica including the Asia Property Investment Fund and its Asian Retail Mall Fund. The retail mall fund already owns four malls in Singapore.

Given that the site, which was already the beneficiary of added traffic when the buses started terminating there, will see even more feet rushing through its halls once the Circle Line is up and running, the planned development seems to be well located. However construction can be a funny thing and the accident-plagued Circle Line construction could yet cause more difficulties. Hopefully, though, Serangoon Station won't be sinking into the earth any time soon.