The Cross-Island Line debacle (to be updated)

It took some time, but I’m beginning the follow what may become a fiasco in nature conservation for Singapore: the proposal to build a train line, albeit underground, through a nature reserve.

The alignment for this Cross-Island Line first quietly appeared in the Land Transport Master Plan released to the media on 17 January 2013. When I saw it I was alarmed, but I was also busy with finishing up my thesis-writing at that time.

It appeared again later in the Land Use White Paper, which had tightly followed the other debacle, the Population White Paper. There were many other issues with the Concept Plan in the Land Use White Paper, sufficient for another day.

A letter to Today Voices (“A transportation plan that crosses the line” by Ms Vinita Ramani Mohan, 20 May 2013) put it this way:

I continue to read with dismay the ongoing plans to develop the Cross Island Line, which will cause habitat damage in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

We withdraw from the crowds in urban areas and visibly relax in an environment that alleviates stress.

There is also a strong spiritual and cultural value attached to these places. I see Singaporeans meditating, doing tai chi and stilling their minds in the forest reserves. I see families teaching their children about nature.

The Cross Island Line is worrying because it sends the message that we need not care about stewardship and responsibility.

It would be a pity to see them irreparably damaged by transportation developments.

In a word, destroyed by Singaporeans who have a responsibility to protect their land.

The Nature Society (Singapore) is steadily stepping up its pressure for a realignment of the line. Natalie Kuan of the Straits Times reports (“Route of MRT Line a concern: Nature Society”, 25 May 2013):

The Nature Society… noted that the present design has the train tracks passing through the nature reserve to connect Bukit Timah and Ang Mo Kio. This will cause habitat fragmentation and soil erosion, leading to significant environmental damage, it said.

The society’s official spokesman on this issue, Mr Tony O’Dempsey, said: “Nature reserves are gazetted for the purpose of conserving native flora and fauna.

“We should not even be thinking of putting infrastructure through our nature reserves.”

I thought that was pretty well-said.

Although the LTA says that it “fully intends to commission an independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to study the environmental impact of the Cross-Island Line… before engineering investigative works into the central catchment nature reserve begin”,

…Mr O’Dempsey, who holds a Bachelor of Applied Science (Surveying) and has worked in the GIS industry in Singapore for 19 years, feels it is too late to conduct an environmental impact assessment if soil investigation is to begin by this year.

He estimates that a credible EIA would take almost a year to complete. “It is never too late to start but if you start now, there won’t be any possibility of doing soil investigation along the alignment this year,” he said.

Then again, I see the usual conflict of interest here: since LTA is proposing the Line, it should not be the one commissioning the EIA. The NParks, at least, is from another Ministry, although under the same one as the URA which is probably fully supportive of the Line, given that it is the agency that put out the Land Use White Paper. But at least the NParks has the institutional mission to protect the reserves.

At this point, it seems rather curious that the alignment was drawn before an EIA was conducted, rather than the other way around. Talking about doing an EIA now seems rather… insincere, if you were to ask me. In addition, why was there no mention of consulting with NParks on this? Isn’t it obvious that your colleagues whose turf you are digging under would be the first you would seek out for an opinion?

Interestingly, a protest by another environmental NGO has been planned from 22 to 23 June 2013, together with guided walks through MacRitchie Reservoir. Protests in Singapore seem to be getting really common?

Two other Forum writers to the Straits Times weighed in on 29 May 2013 regarding the way an EIA seems like an afterthought. The first appearing in print (“Rethink route of Cross-Island MRT Line” by Chia Yong Soon):

Even if the rail system runs underground, much construction work will have to be done on the surface, such as providing access to transportation and building site offices.

Large tracts of forest would have to be cleared. This means erosion, pollution, noise and a whole host of other ill effects.

One wonders how an Environmental Impact Assessment can have anything positive to say about such a venture.

That such a proposal came to pass throws into question the claims by the Government of its commitment to protect the environment. It seems that even a gazetted nature reserve is no longer protected.

There should not be soft or easy options, and certainly not explanations such as “this is the most direct and shortest route across”.

And the other on the Online edition (“LTA must be proactive in engaging stakeholders” by Eugene Tay Tse Chuan):

Nature reserves are sensitive habitats and gazetted areas, and the LTA should have anticipated the concerns of stakeholders before unveiling its plans in January.

There were apparently no proactive attempts to engage or consult stakeholders before the announcement.

Concerned stakeholders have waited patiently for four months to engage LTA to understand its plans for the Environmental Impact Assessment and feasibility studies. How much longer do they have to wait?

The LTA should come forward with a concrete date for the stakeholder engagement.

Now is the time for it to be proactive and sincere in engaging the Nature Society and interested individuals and groups. The future of our nature reserves is at stake.

With the heat on, LTA’s Media Relations and Education Director Helena Lim responds, first to the Today letter (“LTA will minimise environmental impact”, 30 May) and then the other to the Straits Times Forum writers (“Protecting nature reserves a key consideration”, 31 May), that “the detailed alignment of the Cross Island Line (CRL) has not been decided”.

This is a non sequitur. I can’t see how coarse the current alignment is that it can be refined not to touch any part of the reserves.

Both responses are so similar:

As part of the [EIA/assessment], the consultant is required to develop guidelines to guide the Engineering Investigative Works, [which] will be carried out in compliance with these guidelines.

…We share the environmentalists’ concern on any possible impact on the Central Catchment Nature Reserve and assure that sufficient time will be accorded to address these concerns.

Protecting the nature reserves will be an integral consideration for the project and all efforts would be taken to minimise impact to the environment.

In particular, we would like to assure the public that some of the [concerns/scenarios] that have been [expressed/raised], such as the need or intention to clear large tracts of forest in the nature reserves, or the possibility of there being major construction works within the nature reserves, are not contemplated. We ask for some patience as we continue to make preparations for the consultation and the EIA.

I find it unfortunate to label those concerned as “the environmentalists”. I also noticed the qualification of “major construction works” (emphasis mine). As mentioned earlier, since this is called a nature reserve, there should be NO construction work of any kind, other than that assessed as for long-term conservation benefits.

I wonder if total track rerouting around the reserves would be considered as one of the options to “minimize impact”?

Have the journalists quietly thrown their hat into the ring? A special Sunday Times Life! feature (“Green Gems” by Lea Wee, 2 June 2013) writes rather poetically:

…the Central Catchment Nature Reserve is home to ancient forest trees, crystal-clear freshwater streams and cooling freshwater swamp forests.”

Nice. But newbies taking a bash through our rainforests might be in a for a disappointment, though. Most of the time, you’re probably too busy sweating (cooling?) and swiping away bugs than looking at ancient trees and crystal-clear streams.

The richest and largest remaining pockets of lowland dipterocarp forest in Singapore, and possibly the surrounding Riau island region, are found at MacRitchie.

Now that’s interesting. It’s not surprising given that the Johor-Riau area has undergone massive development, so this may be one of the last remaining spots for this floristic subregion. Put that way, our MacRitchie forests suddenly have broader conservation significance than to just Singaporeans! Another interesting morsel of information is that a small remnant patch of Shorea curtisii of the coastal hill dipterocarp formation in the area may be a relic from the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago. (I think Shawn must have been the one who supplied these tasty tidbits.)

Just a tiny bit of error in this good article:

The two subspecies which are found only in Singapore are the cream-coloured giant squirrel and the banded leaf monkey.

The opinion that our banded leaf monkey is an endemic subspecies is outdated. Observations by Huifang and team that the generally-white newborns have a cruciform set of black stripes running from the head down the spine to the tail and across the shoulders and outer forearms suggest that it’s the same subspecies as the one in Johor.

On 18 July, the Nature Society released its formal Position Paper on this issue (covered by Neo Chai Chin of Today, “Nature Society proposes alternative route for the Cross-Island Line“, and Grace Chua of the ST, “Nature Society suggests different route for Cross Island MRT line“). The headlines say it all. The proposed alternative is supposed to be up to 2 km longer, or the equivalent of four minutes’ train time. From the Today article:

This would present an opportunity to serve residents near Adam Road and visitors to the MacRitchie Reservoir Park, it said. “We believe four minutes is not too much to ask for conserving probably the most pristine part of our nature reserve,” said Mr Tony O’Dempsey, an NSS council member and the society’s spokesperson on this issue.

My personal opinion is that the recent Circle Line already offers a way around the reserve. The Caldecott station, for example, is not too far from MacRitchie Reservoir Park. Perhaps to eliminate redundancy, the Cross Island Line should be two disjunct lines, perhaps names CRL1 and CRL2 in the same spirit as Downtown Lines 1 and 2. Changing stations, however, would add to travel time, and the extra load on that segment of the Circle Line may not be within expectations. However, I fear stations that are situated right at the edge of the nature reserve would exacerbate opportunity cost problems in the future… As described in the Today article’s quote from the Position Paper:

…the non-governmental organisation said nature reserves “should not be treated as vacant State Land available to be used for the convenience of transport infrastructure or other purposes”.

While we’re all hoping that LTA will simply give up on even the thought of carrying out potentially damaging “engineering investigative works”, they’re not:

…responding to TODAY’s queries, an LTA spokesperson assured that “the alignment of the Cross Island Line has not been decided, and that no decision will be made until after an Environmental Impact Assessment has been conducted”.

Any decision made will seek to safeguard Singapore’s nature reserves “even as we seek to meet the infrastructure development needs of Singaporeans”, she added.


  1. Reuben Lim said,

    2 June 2013 at 19:21

    Protests because of the negative influence of dastardly Malaysians corrupting Singaporean minds.

  2. 19 June 2013 at 17:05

    […] proposed Cross Island Line (CRL) cuts through the Central Catchment Forest Reserve The Cross-Island Line debacle Saving MacRitchie Forest: A Youngster’s View Save MacRitchie Forest: 1. Introduction Save […]

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