Commuter’s Choice: How Passenger Rail Enhances Experience From Singapore to Michigan

International Transportation and Michigan is a newest Trans4M series examining public transportation projects from around the world. We will be focusing on four diverse regions (Germany, Singapore, Brazil, and India) in hopes of revealing how the world is growing through innovative public transportation projects and then linking these back to Michigan.

Commuters in Singapore overwhelmingly choose rail as their preferred mode of transportation. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) have rightly recognized this trend and are actively working to make rail commuting a more pleasant experience for Singaporeans by targeting problems commonly attributed to public transit, such as delays and overcrowding. Removing what commuters view as deal-breaking logistical or technical problems lets rail shine as a social space that allows for productivity and creativity in commuting.

SMRT Rail

A SMRT Train at Bukit Batok MRT Station along the East West Line in Singapore

To counter the travel delays common from the increasing operational demand on 25-year-old infrastructure, the Public Transport Council increased train fares by 3.2 cents effective January 16, 2014 . The increased fares will be used to upgrade and replace existing infrastructure. Shortly thereafter SMRT experienced a spate of outages, including a single downed train line during a rush-hour commute that caused delays to an estimated 19,000 commuters. SMRT Director Desmond Kuek called the timing “unfortunate,” but faults in reliable service can also justify the raise in fees. These efforts at long-term funding will help SMRT counter future delays, and allow commuters to fully enjoy their commuting experience.

Singapore LRT and MRT trains serve over 142 stations and 2 million passengers a day.

Singapore LRT and MRT trains serve over 142 stations and 2 million passengers a day.

Although Michigan still struggles with the concept, increased long-term funding can improve rail services and reduce delays and other transit uncertainties. Michigan’s transportation system is heavily funded by the gas tax, which tends to favor funneling funds to roads, or even to other to other public services like education, before transit. M-1 Rail faced more than one funding crisis that threatened its future, but private, foundation, and federal grant money helped save the project. The limited funds raised by local and state taxes that actually do contribute to transit projects lack the purchasing power to afford new construction or major renovations. Currently proposed improvements to Detroit-Chicago rail lines, including faster trips, new trains and station upgrades, are largely funded by federal dollars, proving the limitations on state and local funds for anything beyond routine maintenance. As we choose to properly fund rail, we clean up the very problems that discourage people from choosing rail to begin with such as delays and lack of routes.

Singapore seeks to implement changes to enhance the social experience of train travel as well. LTA Director Agnes Kwek stated, “public transport is very much a shared social space and our interactions with other commuters affect our train experience.” The train fosters a unique space for introducing reforms that encourage positive social interactions, which a single-vehicle commute lacks. Initiatives include themed decorations for train cars, and street performers in the station to entertain those awaiting a train. These changes highlight how train travel can be an interesting and dynamic commuting alternative.

Singapore Theme Train

A football-themed cabin with turf grass and stickers directing commuters to the middle of the cabin. Photo: LTA

In most cases in Michigan, public transit does not prove a viable commuting option due to route limitations, but there are a few dedicated individuals who persevere in their choice because they find other benefits in the experience. For almost a decade Chinyere Neale has commuted by rail from her Detroit home to her job in Ann Arbor with the University of Michigan. Neale’s options are limited to one of three Amtrak trains that depart in the morning and another three that come back in the evening. Yet for Neale the choice is obvious, as she told the Ann Arbor News, “It’s just nice to be able to relax and not worry about somebody rear-ending me, or the weather. The train is reliable pretty much regardless of the weather.” With increased routes and more frequent service across the region, more people would be able to choose rail as Neale does.

By changing what people stereotypically assume will be the negative effects of choosing public transit, Singapore hopes to create a positive rail experience. Public transit, even in Michigan, already offers numerous benefits to those who are willing to overlook some uncertainties that are inherent to any commute. Even traffic backups can cause unexpected and potentially time-consuming delays. Public transit commuters also enjoy the potential added health benefit of a short walk to and from their stop.

Michigan has multiple efforts on the table to begin to implement a statewide rail system, including the Washtenaw Livingston commuter line, also called WALLY, and the evaluations underway for the Coast to Coast route. The potential benefits of a rail commute are too important to ignore and can include increased productivity, creativity, and the psychological benefits that can be garnered from the social experience of train travel.

Written by Elle Getschman, Trans4M Fall Fellow

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