SINGAPORE: The scene at Bugis MRT station did not look promising.
It was 10.50pm on Friday (Dec 8), and the last train heading west to Tuas Link had just departed. Despite the repeated announcements blaring through the station, some commuters were still left scratching their heads, looking blankly at signs on the platform that stated clearly: Train Service Ended.
A group of teenagers started looking up alternative travel arrangements, debating if they should get out and look for a taxi, while a tourist peered at the paper signs put up around the station which indicated the times of the last train to Tuas Link from the station. Then the announcement blared again: Trains will only go to Outram Park.
The early closure of 17 East-West Line and two North-South Line MRT stations - announced last month by train operator SMRT and the Land Transport Authority - had just begun, and for the rest of the evening, the stations from Tiong Bahru to Tuas Link, as well as Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak on the North-South Line would be closed. Four shuttle bus services would ply the affected routes along the MRT stations, and would follow the same fare structure as trains.
Ride-hailing apps like Grab and Uber were well-prepared for the projected increased demand from commuters seeking an alternative way home. A Grab spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia that steps are being taken to ensure "drivers and passengers have the best possible experience despite the closures, and to minimise any inconveniences." Grab also encouraged passengers to schedule rides in advance, if they knew their travel schedule ahead of time.
Uber, meanwhile, will be extending a discount code to riders in affected areas on Sunday (Dec 10), when the stations close for a whole day.
But with taxis in short supply and prices for Uber and Grab still experiencing a surge due to higher than average demand, I decided to put my faith in the train system, get off at Outram Park and brave the shuttle buses in order to continue my journey. But as the platform filled up slowly and the "Train Service Ended" sign continued to flash with no train in sight, I found myself questioning my decision.
Thankfully, a train pulled into the station within 10 minutes, and we all squeezed in. It was more crowded than usual, but the ride was, at least, a short one before we reached Outram Park and we were informed - by garbled announcements - that we would have to get off the train here.
FRAYED TEMPERS AND RAISED VOICES
It was here that I saw tempers starting to fray. Marshals in luminous vests were out in full force, directing commuters to walk out of the station and towards the bus stop where they could board the designated shuttle buses.
But perhaps due to the large crowd of people and the station’s many different exits, some made wrong turns and ended up at a different bus stop with no shuttle buses in sight. Shuttle buses, we had been told by the marshals, would be marked as such. But while there was no shortage of buses at this bus stop, it turned out that none of them were the shuttle buses, as some commuters found out to their chagrin.
"This is not the shuttle bus!" I could hear a bus driver exclaiming loudly to commuters trying to flag him down. "You’ll have to go back to the station and go to the right exit!"
There were complaints and grunts of frustration aplenty, given that the bus stop was a good distance out of the station. Some gave up and started searching for taxis to flag down, while others opened the trusty ride-hailing apps on their phones.
But a larger group of us decided to make the trek for it and began to retrace our steps. Along the way, we passed more confused-looking people and others venting their frustration on station staff, who did their best to calm them down and send them on the right track.
The scene inside the station, however, seemed to be under control. Clear announcements were now being made, directing commuters to Exit F. Knowing what we should be looking out for, it was easy to follow the signs to the right exit, where barricades and station staff were in place to handle the crowd.
"Guys, please wait a while!"
My walk was interrupted by a marshal who motioned for us to wait behind the barricades in the station. A human jam had formed, and crowd control had to be carried out.
But one elderly lady had reached her limit. Pushing her way to the front, she began to complain to the marshal, asking him why this was taking so long.
"It’s already so difficult for us to get around, why do you need to make this harder?"
He shrugged and apologised for the inconvenience, telling her it would not be much longer.
JOURNEY LONGER THAN USUAL, BUT PLEASANT NONETHELESS
And indeed, barely five minutes later, we were allowed to go past the barricades and exit the station. Double decker shuttle buses - clearly marked as "Shuttle 1" to Jurong East - were lined up and commuters were quickly ushered into the buses.
Before we knew it, we were off.
It was a relatively uneventful ride, largely due to the clear roads. The bus was also pleasantly empty, and there were ample seats available for everyone. Passengers chatted with each other in low voices, while others dozed off in the back of the bus.
It took about 45 minutes for the bus I boarded at Outram Park to arrive at Jurong East Interchange, which was where my journey ended. A longer journey than if I were to have stayed on the train, but after being stuck on the crowded train, it was a nice change to get a seat and stare out of the bus window for a bit. A fair trade-off, I felt, given that these early closures were well publicised and indeed, deemed necessary for engineers to accelerate re-signalling works on the East-West Line.
And indeed, commuters I spoke to were understanding and did not seem to mind the added inconvenience.
"I waited quite long for a bus, so more frequent shuttle bus services would have been good,” said one commuter, who wished to be known only as Ms Chan. “But the signs on the platforms were clear and the people at Outram Park did quite a good job in directing us to the shuttle bus stops."
"So everything was quite okay," she added, noting that her trip this evening took an additional 20-25 minutes.
Another commuter, Soe Min, also pointed out that his trip was "longer than usual".
"It was quite a long trip and I had to walk quite a long distance to the bus stop at Outram Park," he said. "But they do need to close the stations early, so I understand."
"Overall, it was better than expected."