When the last of Keretapi Tanah Melayu’s (KTM) trains pulled away from Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on 30 June 2011, no one knew the fate of the terminus and the 24 kilometre-long rail corridor that linked Singapore and Malaysia. While many of us saw it as yet another empty plot of land waiting to be developed, there were some who saw endless possibilities.
Way back in 2010, the Nature Society (Singapore) proposed that the Railway Land — which measures 173.7 hectares, or three times the size of Botanical Gardens — be turned into a “green corridor” that connects multiple green spaces along its route. This idea, out of many other ideas proposed, quickly caught on, and with no plans set in stone at that time, the “Green Corridor” soon entered the Singaporean lexicon.
In the last four years, the Corridor has taken on a life of its own. Flora and fauna are creeping back into the land. Morning joggers, off-road cyclists, amateur photographers, nature enthusiasts, bird-watchers and local residents have found their favourite spots along the corridor.
During this period, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) also engaged different segments of the community extensively through various platforms to gather their feedback and aspirations for the Rail Corridor. These include industry professionals, non-governmental organisations and even secondary-and tertiary-level students. The idea, really, is to explore how the Corridor can bring members of various communities together, all the while retaining the nature and heritage of the Rail Corridor experience.
Now, ideas for the Corridor are about to take off.
On 18 March this year, the URA launched a Request for Proposal for the Rail Corridor, inviting design professionals to develop a Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals on how the Corridor can be utilised and revitalised. The community’s input have been distilled into a set of Planning and Design Goals that are now guiding the RFP proposals. Tan See Nin, URA’s Senior Director of Physical Planning said: “We are looking for inspiring and visionary concepts that can shape the quality of experience along the Rail Corridor and turn it into an extraordinary public space. While the former railway line divided communities, the Rail Corridor now has the potential to link communities and provide a common space for shared experiences. The RFP will enable us to come up with the right design strategies and tools to achieve this collective vision for the Rail Corridor. Key features we expect to see are seamless connectivity, a green corridor experience and a connection to the heritage.” Dr Tan Beng Kiang, Senior Lecturer at the NUS School of Environment and Design sees the influx of interest from professionals and unprofessional in this space as unprecedented. She says:
“The corridor runs from the north of the island to the south, there simply hasn’t been a project of this scale before. [Also], it will affect many people who live near and around the area.”
Running through the vicinity of nine neighbourhoods, future plans for the Corridor has the potential to affect about 1.1 million Singaporeans. Jerome Lim, the founder of The Long and Winding Road blog and self-proclaimed Wondering Wanderer, also sees the complexities from his point of view. “It does get complicated with the conflicting demands, [as well as] the need to allow its use to be extended to the wider community. There is also a danger of over development to an extent [that] it loses the appeal as a continuous green space.”
That is why, even before the closure of the KTM railway line in 2011, work was already underway to study and document the Rail Corridor.
For example, in August 2011, students from National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture led by Dr Tan Beng Kiang embarked on a year-long project to study the Rail Corridor. The idea is to figure out what the Corridor has to offer and, at the same time, what the locals wanted out of the space. Aside from painstakingly taking over 2,000 pictures, the students also documented the land in a series of mappings, such as greenery, heritage sites, accessibility and nearby communal facilities that are published in a book “Rail Ideas: Visions for the Rail Corrdior”. The result is a slew of design recommendations from the students, some of which could very well become reality someday.
What the future holds
Final-year student Jeremy Pan envisioned the Rail Corridor as a series of community farms, ones that are integrated with recreational centres that hold farming and gardening classes and vacation stay. And because the Corridor will double as a distribution route for the commercial crops, Pan’s plan has the potential to lower the carbon footprint of supplying vegetables to consumers.
The idea that caught Dr Tan’s attention when it was proposed, however, was the Ghim Moh Artists’ Grove by Tan Ying Yi, then a Year 3 student. His idea revolves around a green space dedicated to outdoor galleries and eco-art, in the area between Holland Drive HDB estate and Ghim Moh HDB estate. Not only does the grove allow aspiring artists and the public to participate in exhibitions, classes and workshops, it also stitches together communities that would otherwise have been isolated because of the railway corridor.
Even though these students’ ideas are not part of the upcoming RFP, Dr Tan believes that it is important to engage the students for such a project. “It’s about giving the authorities different perspectives. It is important that people can visualise [the possibilities], even if some ideas are raw and not perfect,” she said. “Also, these students will become architects and planners in the future, so they should be aware of the precious assets of our country, and how to push for new ideas with sensitivity.” Pushing for new ideas, according to Dr Tan, is especially important, considering that every generation will have different needs. Change to the rail corridor “is not going to happen overnight,” so it is important for them “to be aware of what’s available now to prepare for the future.”
One last look
Yet, for now, it’s business as usual. Back in early April, Going Places made a trip down to the Rail Corridor to catch a glimpse of the place before the RFP shortlisted teams are announced.
Our journey began at the Bukit Timah Railway Station, which is now fenced up on all sides. Behind the padlocked gates, one can still see furniture of old piled up in corners. We followed the trail up towards the iconic steel truss bridge that spans the busy Dunearn Road below. Despite its rusty coat, the tracks felt robust, and the subtle vibrations from the traffic below are throwbacks to four years ago, when trains still ran in both directions.
In many ways, the Rail Corridor doubles as a physical timeline of Singapore’s development through the years from a sleepy village — the wetlands in the north — to a global city lined with skyscrapers — the CBD in the south. Even today, walking along the Rail Corridor from end to end is a reminder of how much Singapore has developed in a few short decades.
Five shortlisted teams from URA’s RFP have been announced to participate in the second stage. These were selected from 64 submissions. The five teams will develop the overall Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals for the Rail Corridor, including two special interest areas for the urban-green-blue integrated concepts at Choa Chu Kang, and the concept designs for the adaptive reuse of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. All participating teams’ submissions will be exhibited in October 2015.