The North-East Line: Singapore’s First Underground MRT Line

The North-East Line, or NEL, is Singapore’s third MRT line, and also the world’s first fully automated and driverless line. We look at its history and how it came to be.
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One of the reasons behind Singapore’s robust public transport system is our MRT network. The coverage these networks provide to Singaporeans makes getting around the island very convenient. One of these major MRT networks is the North-East Line (NEL), or commonly known as the Purple Line, and it is Singapore’s third MRT line.

History of the North-East Line

As the name suggests, the purple-marked North-East Line (NEL) MRT runs through central Singapore to the north-eastern and south-western parts of the country. 

Unlike the older North-South (NSL) and East-West lines (EWL), The NEL is fully underground. As a result, all MRT stations are air-conditioned for the comfort of commuters. It is also the world’s first driverless and fully automated train system.

The line dates back to 1986, and was initially planned to have Outram Park as its southern terminus. In 1993, there was a change of plans, and Harbourfront became the terminus instead after it was noted that many people liked to travel there.

The 20km long NEL has 16 stations, and every station features artwork that highlights the cultural significance or heritage of the area.

NEL stations:

  • Harbourfront
  • Outram Park
  • Chinatown
  • Clarke Quay
  • Dhoby Ghaut
  • Little India
  • Farrer Park
  • Boon Keng
  • Potong Pasir
  • Woodleigh
  • Serangoon
  • Kovan
  • Hougang
  • Buangkok
  • Sengkang
  • Punggol
  • Punggol Coast (u/c)

The beginnings of the North-East Line

Construction began in 1997 and was scheduled to open in 2002. Several delays were caused due to issues with automation and the opening was pushed back. The NEL line was finally opened on 20 June 2003. 

However, two stations, Buangkok and Woodleigh, remained closed for some years. Trains would simply pass by them. According to SBS Transit,  the passenger numbers were not enough to justify the cost of putting these stations into operation. 

Buangkok was already completed at this time, and amid growing pressure from the public, the company reconsidered their stance. After reviewing the situation, Buangkok was opened in January 2006. Woodleigh MRT station would follow five years later.

North-East Line: Serving the old and new

The NEL MRT passes through culturally significant areas like Clarke Quay, Dhoby Ghaut and Chinatown, all of which also see high levels of human activity. It also services both mature and new residential estates like Potong Pasir, Serangoon, Sengkang, Hougang and Punggol. The line will be further extended by 2023 with the addition of Punggol Coast, which will be in the Punggol Downtown area. 

The opening of the line also caused large-scale bus route adjustments in order to cut down on route duplication. This resulted in a lot of bus routes that plied the Upper Serangoon Road area being amended or completely withdrawn. The only route that was left unchanged was bus service 147.

Timeline of the North-East Line

  • 20 Jun 2003: North East Line opens, sans Woodleigh and Buangkok
  • 15 Jan 2006: Buangkok opens
  • 20 Jun 2011: Woodleigh opens
  • 2023: North East Line Extension to Punggol Coast

Renewal Works on the North-East Line

In 2019, the NEL will begin undergoing major renewal works. They will span several years, and includes the installation of a new monitoring system to track train performances more closely. The trains will also have their air-conditioning upgraded, and their interior fittings such as seats and floorings replaced. All mechanical and electrical systems will also receive detailed inspections. 

The North-East Line: Connecting the northeastern and south-western parts of Singapore

There are seven MRT interchange stations with the four existing MRT lines: NSL, EWL, Circle Line (CCL), and Downtown Line (DTL). In the coming years, the NEL will also have three interchange stations with the future Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL) and Cross-Island Line (CRL). These are:

  • Punggol MRT station (CRL)
  • Hougang MRT station (CRL)
  • Serangoon MRT station (CCL)
  • Little India MRT station (DTL)
  • Dhoby Ghaut MRT station (NEL, CCL)
  • Chinatown MRT station (DTL)
  • Outram Park MRT station (EWL, TEL)
  • Harbourfront MRT station (CCL)

Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is a major interchange station and is probably the busiest interchange station. It is also in the city centre, so travel time is less than 45 minutes even from Punggol. 

Speaking of Punggol, it has grown from being Singapore’s original “ulu town” to a bustling new town with many recreational activities and waterfront living. The estate is very well connected to the NEL. Many neighbourhoods in Punggol are within walking distance of an LRT, which brings residents directly to Punggol station. Watertown is in Punggol Central, which is extremely near to Punggol MRT station. 

Another stop on the NEL worth noting is Serangoon - the station is connected directly to NEX, which is the largest heartland megamall. The mall has brands such as H&M, Uniqlo, Sephora, and Isetan, as well as a huge selection of dining options. Serangoon Gardens, the home of Chomp Chomp, is also just a short bus ride away. If the idea of living near so many lifestyles and shopping options appeals to you, you can consider Affinity at Serangoon

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