An Idiot’s Guide to the Singapore MRT

The best metro system in the world is also one of the cheapest, and as such, it can get you virtually everywhere in Singapore. But how do you use it?

The MRT system by 2021 (click to enlarge)
The MRT system by 2021 (click to enlarge)

The Mass Rapid Transit, or MRT, is a rapid transit system forming the major component of the railway system in Singapore, spanning the entire city state. The initial section of the MRT, between Yio Chu Kang and Toa Payoh, opened in 1987, making it the second-oldest metro system in Southeast Asia, after Manila’s LRT System in the Philippines. The network has since grown rapidly in accordance with the aim of developing a comprehensive rail network as the backbone of the public transport system in Singapore, with an average daily ridership of 2.75m in 2013.

The MRT system relied on its two main lines, the North South and East West lines, for more than a decade until the opening of the North East Line in 2003. Back in 1996, the Land Transport Authority’s published a White Paper titled “A World Class Land Transport System” which heralded its intentions to greatly expand the system. It called for the expansion of the 67km of track in 1995 to 360km in 2030. It is expected that daily ridership in 2030 would grow to 6m from the 1.4m passengers at the time of publication of the plans in 1996.

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The MRT network encompasses 152km of track, with 113 stations in operation. The lines are built by the Land Transport Authority, a statutory board of the Government of Singapore, which allocates operating concessions to the profit-based corporations, SMRT Corporation and SBS Transit. Services operate from about 5.30am and usually end before 1am daily with trains arriving approximately every 1 to 2 minutes during rush hours and at least every 6 minutes at all other times. Services operate all night during festive periods such as Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa, and Singapore’s National Day.

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Weird rules and signage are things that you will no doubt discover when you use the MRT. There are many signs, that are now famous online, that prohibit the transportation or consumption of durians on the MRT (this is due to their pungent smell).

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Unlike on other MRT systems throughout the world (i.e. the London Underground), the cleanliness of the trains in Singapore is very high. Most trains seem brand spanking new, and are perfectly air conditioned. In fact, many people say it is more comfortable travelling on the MRT than it is at street level, due to the infamous heat and humidity in Singapore. Electronic maps above the doors will tell you which station you are at and which is the next station. Announcements are also made in a variety of languages (see below).

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OK, so now you’re familiar with what the MRT is and want to know how to ride this thing? I cannot emphasise enough the benefit of using the EZ Link card (pictured above). They are similar to Oyster Card in London, Octopus Card in Hong Kong, and the Touch N Go Card used in Malaysia. I purchased my EZ Link card from Bayfront Station, but they are available at every MRT station during opening hours. They cost $12, of which $5 is non-refundable, and the remaining $7 is your starting balance to use on the MRT (and buses). You can use cash or credit/debit cards to top up the balance on your EZ Link card at any time.

Whenever you touch in to the MRT, i.e. through the turnstiles before the platform, you swipe your card across the reader and the barrier will lift, allowing you to pass through. You can see how much money you still have left on your balance each time you do this, as it shows up on the reader on the turnstile. When you have finished your journey on the MRT and coming back to street level, you again swipe your EZ Link card to get through the turnstile and the remaining balance will show on the reader. You could conceivably get from side of Singapore to another (i.e. Bayfront to Kranji, or Pasir Ris to Jurong) for little more than $5, so that gives you an idea that even a few large journeys won’t break the bank. If you do happen to run out of cash when you attempt to leave the turnstiles, alert one of the station staff who will assist you in topping up your card (unless you want to live in the station forever haha).

As well as being used on the MRT and public buses within Singapore, EZ Link cards have other functions, such as being able to be used as payment in Singaporean branches of McDonald’s (no need to carry around any small change), and for students the card can be used to buy school dinners during the day (no more hungry bellies).

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There’s nothing quite like exploring Singapore on the MRT. From popular tourist areas like Chinatown and Harbourfront (Sentosa) stations to the urban side of Singapore, such as Pasir Ris in the east, and Kranji in the north, you can always be sure of consistency of service, safety, and cleanliness wherever you are. And as mentioned before, due to its relative cheapness, you could spend weeks on the island and never even think about using a bus or a taxi.

The 4 languages of the Singapore MRT!
The 4 languages of the Singapore MRT!

One of the things I like most about the Singapore MRT is that is has signage (and sometimes announcements) made in each of the city state’s 4 official languages: English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. It is sometimes really cool to stand at the platform edge awaiting the train at, say, Chinatown Station, and hear an announcement in 4 different languages simultaneously that a train is approaching! It means that navigating your way around the MRT is considerably easier than in metro systems in other countries, for example Seoul Metro or Beijing Metro, that only have 2 languages used (native language and English).

So who knows what the future will hold for Singapore’s marvellous MRT. I hear there are plans for a Singapore-Johor rail link, which would be able to link the MRT to Peninsula Malaysia’s rail network, and beyond! This would be incredible and arguably much more convenient and cheap than flying. Watch this space!

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