Launch of the Mass Rapid Transit System

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Commemoration of the Delivery of the First MRT TrainsA view of Bishan Depot at the commemoration of the delivery of the first MRT trains on 8 July 1986. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Launch of the Mass Rapid Transit System in Singapore
The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system in Singapore today is an integral pillar of public transportation with an average daily ridership of at least two million. In the late 1970s, Singapore had in place an efficient bus network, but planning studies conducted during that time anticipated transportation problems with Singapore’s booming population and rising expectations for transport efficiency. Although the MRT line opened to its first passengers in 1987, talks for a potential MRT system as part of the transport infrastructure in Singapore began as early as in the late 1960s.

The idea originated from a concept plan based on a 1967 study conducted by the Singapore State and City Planning Department and the United Nations Development Programme. The study projected a population of 3.4 million by 1992 in Singapore and called for improved road infrastructure and a mass transit system to cope with the anticipated increase in travel to the city centre of Singapore.
Ong Teng Cheong at a MRT Study Trip to FranceCommunications Minister Ong Teng Cheong with Mass Rapid Transit Study team members at a briefing by French personnel during a MRT study trip to France in 1980. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

In the 1970s, due to the booming population, traffic congestion had worsened, making it imperative to find solutions to ease the congestion. In 1972, a team of consultants and officers seconded from the government embarked on the Singapore Mass Transit Study to analyse the transport situation in Singapore. During the first phase, the team made recommendations for the government to invest in public transportation, in particular for a rail mass transit as the best solution to meeting anticipated travel demands in Singapore.

In the second phase of the study, the team examined the economic, financial and technical feasibility of the mass transit system and argued that a bus-rail system was far superior to an all-bus system. However, the government deliberated on the decision as the construction of a MRT system involved high costs and possible impacts on the patterns of land use and economic activities.

The third phase of the study conducted between 1979 and 1980 provided a preliminary engineering design for the recommended transit system. A Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority was appointed in 1980 to undertake preparatory work for the construction of a possible MRT system.

In May 1982, the government made the decision to build and completely finance the S$5-billion MRT system. In announcing the decision, Minister for Communications Ong Teng Cheong said the construction of the MRT was not only an investment in transport. It was also a means of boosting long-term investor confidence and had the potential to bring about multiplier effects such as increasing land values in Singapore.

Constructing the system
In 1983, MRT Corporation replaced the Provisional MRT Authority and was tasked with constructing and operating the MRT system. The operations of the MRT system was handed over to a new company established in 1987 called the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) Ltd.

The MRT system approved in 1982 was 67 km long and consisted of three lines and 42 stations: North-South Line from Yishun to Marina Bay; East-West Line from Pasir Ris to Boon Lay; and the Western Line between Jurong town and Bukit Panjang. The North-South Line was the first section constructed as the north-south corridor was seen as most badly affected by traffic congestion and that passenger traffic plying that corridor was expected to be the highest.
Construction Site of the Tiong Bahru MRT StationConstruction site of the Tiong Bahru MRT Station in the early 1980s. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

The MRT system first began operations on 7 November 1987, with a five-station segment from Toa Payoh to Yio Chu Kang first opened to passengers. The novelty of a mass rapid transit system attracted thousands of passengers on the first day. Nine more stations were added from Novena to Outram Park on 12 December 1987.
First MRT Stations OpenThousands flock to the official opening of the first MRT Stations between Toa Payoh and Yio Chu Kang on 7 November 1987. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Commuters Taking Train on First DayCommuters taking the train during the official opening of the Yio Chu Kang-Toa Payoh line of the MRT system. (c. 7 November 1987. Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew officially launched the MRT system on 12 March 1988. By April 1988, at least 200,000 passengers were taking the MRT daily. A 16-km extension to Woodlands was announced in 1991 and completed in 1996.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Official Opening of the MRT SystemMr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew boards the train on the official opening of the MRT system on 12 March 1988. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Work also began on the North East Line in 1996. The line took commuters from Punggol through to busy downtown and Harbourfront and opened in 2003. In October 2011, all stations of the Circle Line opened.

The MRT system was a crucial addition to the transport infrastructure in Singapore. It helped to alleviate traffic congestion and made commuting to work easier. Travelling times were shortened and this contributed to an overall increase in productivity.
First Day Cover Commemorating Opening of North East LineThis first day cover commemorates the opening of the Mass Rapid Transit North East Line on 20 June 2003. Driverless trains ply this line from HarbourFront through to busy downtown and Punggol. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)

Future of the MRT System
The MRT system today is one of the most popular modes of transport in Singapore with a network of more than a hundred stations across the island. By 2030, the rail network will cover 360 km with the completion of future rail lines and expansions.
Postcard Depicting Chinese Garden MRT StationThis is a postcard depicting Chinese Garden MRT Station in the early 1990s. ( Image from National Museum of Singapore)

Invitation for Viewing of MRT StationsA Mass Rapid Transit Corporation leaflet that is an invitation for the public viewing of Khatib and Yishun MRT stations. This is an invitation for nearby residents to attend the public viewing of the stations before the commencement of passenger service. (c. December 1988. Image from National Museum of Singapore)

MRT Commemorative TicketA MRT commemorative ticket dating 1990. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)
MRT East-West Extension Open Day PosterThe Open Day poster for the MRT East-West Extension on 29 October 1989. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Redhill MRT Station Poster in MalayThis is a poster in Malay welcoming visitors to Redhill MRT Station. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)