THE Minister of State for National Development has sounded what green groups have read as a positive note on the fate of the island's north-south strip of railway land.
Brigadier-General (NS) Tan Chuan Jin indicated in a Facebook post that the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the National Parks Board have been in talks with the Nature Society of Singapore (NSS) over several interest groups' proposal to turn the land into a continuous strip of recreational space.
The 173.7ha tract of land, which now belongs to Malaysia's Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM), reverts to Singapore on July 1. About 40km of railway now sit on it - 26km from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands, and at least a further 14km of disused line from Clementi to Jurong.
BG Tan, who described the proposal for such a 'green corridor' as 'fascinating', wrote in his post:
'I believe that there are exciting possibilities to bring Singaporeans together as we embark on this journey to create our home, even as we preserve our environment and heritage.'
The authorities will meet members of the interest groups soon, he said, and 'outreach efforts' will begin in earnest in due course.
BG Tan, who is also Minister of State for Manpower, offered an explanation for what may have seemed to some as a delayed response to the matter:
'We have been rather quiet on this publicly, as it would be prudent for us to let the agreement unfold and cross our July 1st milestone, when the railway line will become an integral part of Singapore again.'
The 'agreement' he was referring to is the land- swop deal sealed between Singapore and Malaysia last September; under it, the land vacated by the relocation of the railway terminal to Woodlands would be exchanged for parcels of land in Marina South and in the Ophir-Rochor area.
He added that having been quiet 'does not equate to being silent. We have had a good working relationship with the NSS'.
Local nature and heritage interest groups submitted their green corridor proposal to various ministries and government agencies last October; they suggested converting the strip into a cycling and pedestrian trail, much like existing park connectors.
The NSS, on its part, has undertaken a survey of the area's plant and animal life. Rare birds such as the Buffy Fish Owl have been seen in some parts there.
Green corridor supporter and environment consultant Eugene Tay thanked BG Tan for his 'open and positive note', saying that developing the corridor was an opportunity not to be wasted.
Mr Tay told The Straits Times that, even as he looked forward to the meetings with the authorities and the outreach efforts, the time had not yet come to pop the champagne.
'But it's good he openly mentioned that they are looking into the proposal. I think there's hope,' he said.
Already, the Bukit Timah railway station has been gazetted as a building to be conserved, and the Tanjong Pagar railway station, as a national monument.
A tender to remove other railway structures, however, was awarded this month to engineering firm Indeco Engineers.
The tender documents call for three steel bridges - at Hillview Road, Ten Mile Junction and Kranji Loop - to be torn down, along with sleepers, tracks, cables, gates, posts, and small buildings along the line from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands.
Some rail equipment, such as signal lights, level crossings, controllers and traffic lights, have been earmarked for re-use, but the tender documents have not spelt out who would re-use them.
The NSS plans to ask the authorities for at least a six-month 'stay of execution' on the removal of these structures to give members of the public more time to go on guided or independent walks on the railway safely, said NSS vice-president Leong Kwok Peng.
To date, about 1,000 members of the public have been on such walks, he said.
Overseas, conserved railway land has been turned into visitor destinations; examples include New York City's High Line Park and Paris' Promenade Plantee.
BG Tan said he plans to visit the French park during an upcoming trip to the Group of 20 meetings there.