What is the ‘rail’ truth anyways?

TRANSIT took note of this very interesting commentary from Associate Professor Sabariah Jemali from the Malaysian Institute for Transport at Universiti Teknologi Mara (Shah Alam).

Prof. Sabariah writes of the overwhelming attention given to the MRT project and comments that the attention given may reflect the boiling over of all of the frustrations of public transport users (and many drivers as well) over the disorganized, poorly planned, poorly integrated private and public transport systems that they have to deal with every day.

We agree. Oh yes, we certainly agree – and we wonder if some of that frustration is also being expressed because talk of the MRT project as the ‘grand solution’ to our public transport woes just reminds the public of similar talk in the past – about RapidKL, about the LRT, about the Komuter system, about IntraKota…

The rail truth — Sabariah Jemali (The Malaysian Insider)
April 23, 2011

APRIL 23 — The Klang Valley MRT project has received so much media attention over the past six weeks that the whole project is beginning to seem bigger than what it already is. Never before has so much anger, bitterness and frustration been poured over an infrastructure project. It would appear that all the bad experiences associated with packed trains, stalled buses and walks in the scorching heat have rained on the proposed MRT line running from Sungai Buloh to Kajang in one fiery storm.

[TRANSIT: We daresay that if the public had seen a public transport network (rather than an MRT line) there would have been far less frustration and more interest.]

The underlying fact is the Klang Valley needs an efficient public transport system. Over the last 20 years, Klang Valley residents have seen many changes with only minor improvements to the way they got from point A to point B. Which is why they are demanding much, much more from the proposed MRT. The cost of the MRT will be bigger, the disruptions during construction will be greater and therefore expectations are higher.

The situation today

In the Klang Valley today only 17 per cent or approximately 1.24 million trips per day are completed using public transport (see graphic).
The remainder of the 83 per cent or six million trips were made using private transport which are mostly single occupancy vehicles. This explains the huge traffic jams and constant gridlock even though the Klang Valley has one of the highest concentrations of roads and tolled highways in the world.

The number of people in the Klang Valley is currently at six million and is expected to increase to 10 million people in 2020. The Klang Valley also has 3.2 million cars and the number of cars is growing at an exceedingly strong rate — an average of 30,000 cars per month in the Klang Valley.

At this rate we would have approximately seven million cars by 2020, a number that the Klang Valley cannot support. Already we are facing space constraints to build more roads and more parking lots. Cars are being double parked and triple parked, causing even more congestion. Traffic jams in the city are increasing and it is getting taking longer and longer to get to work.

Very soon the argument that driving to work takes less time than taking public transport is not going to be true any more. We would have eschewed public transport in favour of traffic jams, time wastage and lost productivity.

This situation is very different in Singapore, Hong Kong and London whose share of public transport trips is 64 per cent, 74 per cent and 90 per cent respectively. All these cities share a common fact — they have an MRT but they also have public transport policies in place and this has resulted in a high share of public transport trips. A well-grounded public transport policy has to be put in place and co-ordinated public transport planning are needed to ensure that the Greater KL area becomes among the top 20 liveable cities in the world. An effective policy can determine and influence how public transport will move ahead. Otherwise people are going to get into their cars and drive off before you can even say MRT.

[TRANSIT: She’s saying it! Finally, someone is saying it. And with it comes the subtext – MRT not enough. Policy needed. It’s as if she took the words right from our collective keyboards.]

Importance of policies and co-ordinated planning

The overdependence on cars is a direct result of an unplanned public transport system that relies on piecemeal improvements. One of the reasons is the lack of co-ordinated planning by a single agency that takes ownership of the responsibility of looking at public transport as a network instead of piecemeal “projects”. It is thus timely that the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) officially came into being on June 3, 2010 with the coming into force of the Suruhanjaya Pengangkutan Awam Darat Act 2010. The core functions of SPAD are to draw up of policies for land public transport, planning, regulation and enforcement of laws, rules and regulations concerning land public transport. The powers for the commission to carry out these functions are provided in the Land Public Transport Act 2010.

[TRANSIT: Notice it does not say “shill for MRT project” among the list of core functions for SPAD. Perhaps it is more of an added bonus. Ok, we are being a little bit unfair as we know SPAD is doing a lot of other work behind the scenes. The problem is that – the work they are doing is behind the scenes!]

To achieve the 50 per cent public transport share as envisaged by the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) under the Greater KL National Key Economic Area (NKRA), SPAD will have to cure the deficiencies in the public transport system with more than piecemeal efforts. It will need to look into policies and plans to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated and are grounded in the following:

Utility

Governments have realised that public transport is not a business but a utility that it is very difficult to make money from public transport. There are ways to reduce costs and increase revenues but generally operators have a tough time recouping costs and running their operations profitably. The story is the same whether it is in London or Hong Kong. In these countries, there is a single manager which ensures operators are given certain routes to ply, wear standard colours and meet certain KPIs. In exchange they are paid a fee. This way the participation of operators is guaranteed and the regions that are covered by a public transport system will be more complete as opposed to having areas which do not have any form of public transport.

In the case of the Klang Valley, for example, Prasarana should be the single manager, managing the various rail operators with SPAD ensuring that Prasarana does a good job. SPAD should be dealing only with a single entity, Prasarana, and not multiple entities. SPAD can then focus on the big picture such as public transport policy directions, fare standards, etc.

[TRANSIT: No. Although this proposal sounds good – a massive government-run company running the show. “How efficient & standardized”, one might say. “How scary!” replies TRANSIT.

The reason why is actually quite simple – having Prasarana run everything (with SPAD watching Prasarana) means that there will be a massive national-level bureaucracy and another massive national-level bureaucratic company that are so far removed from the daily public transport trip that they are not able to make any real change.

Public transport in the Klang Valley cannot be run from Putrajaya. We need local organizations to run local public transport – with a key understanding of issues & policy at a regional and national level.

That is why the best solution is TRANSIT’s proposed 4-stakeholders’ model.]

Lessons of the past in the Klang Valley where various operators were allowed to run the rail and bus networks for profit resulted in operators not being able to make returns on their investment, and consumers on unprofitable routes being underserved should not be repeated.

Inclusivity

Any public transport system in a major urban area needs to cater to the entire population and not just the lower-income level group or only the middle-income level group or tourists. Such planning will result in an underutilised public transport system. This means that the service levels should be one that serves a high-level executive or a manual labourer equally. This for the most part means air-conditioned comfort, clean public toilets, well-lit covered walkways, proper signages and on-time scheduling at an affordable price.

[TRANSIT: Inclusivity sounds like a good concept but we technical people prefer the concept of Access – a service that can be accessed and that provides access, is a service that will be used.

Now, referring to her examples, we prefer a different order. On-time scheduling, proper signages, clean public toilets, well-lit & covered walkways, air-conditioned comfort and finally, an affordable price.]

This will ensure a higher take-up rate among the general population who will now view public transport in a more positive light. Today, many private vehicle owners in the Klang Valley give public transport a thumb’s down simply because public transport is not up to mark, to be tolerated by those who have no choice.

Integration

Rail-based infrastructure in the Klang Valley is fairly extensive and has a total rail length of 224.6km.

[TRANSIT: Interestingly enough, we are told that we do not have enough rail and must build more kilometres of “backbone” – the MRT network.]

While this figure is commendable there should be greater strategic integration within the rail networks and with other forms of public transport.

A passenger should be able to travel on the network seamlessly without having to worry about buying tickets for different lines or being able to switch trains with ease.

He or she should find it easy to get from their homes to the train station once he gets off the train or should find it easy to reach his or her destination. Because rail networks have a limited reach and cannot go to every destination, it is important that rail networks are supplemented by a good feeder bus network. This feeder bus network must be planned in such a way that people living within a 3km radius of any station can reach the station in 15 minutes.

So while more kilometres of rail are added such as the extensions of the Ampang and Kelana Jaya lines to by a further 35km and MRT lines will add another 141km of rail to cater to the growth in population to 10 million by 2020, strategic integration i.e. using different modes to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the other, should be emphasised otherwise adding kilometres of rail will not get people to make the move from private to public transport.

Sustainability

Public transport especially rail networks which are more environmentally friendly can be part of an overall “green” policy, a broader issue of reducing CO2 emissions and environmental protection through the promotion and use of rail networks to replace exhaust emitting vehicles especially single occupancy vehicles. It is estimated a single MRT train consisting of four carriages is able to carry 1,200 people which is the average number of people carried in 700 cars.

Conclusion

The Klang Valley needs an MRT system for sure. But more importantly it needs a sustainable public transport policy in place. The Klang Valley Public Transport Master Plan should incorporate all these elements of utility, inclusivity, integration and sustainability in order that public transportation gets the buy in from the public which it is meant to serve.

The MRT alone is not a silver bullet, a well-grounded public transport policy is.

* Associate Professor Dr Sabariah Jemali is deputy director (Research & Industrial Linkages), MITRANS@UiTM Universiti Teknologi Mara.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

TRANSIT Says:

The members of TRANSIT would like to express our appreciation to Prof Sabariah for her very interesting points. We also think she expresses the frustration of public transport users very well.

Yes, it is as if all of the frustration of 25 years of promised public transport improvements, including revamps, restructuring, new infrastructure, KTM Komuter, LRT1, LRT2, monorail (LRT3), ETS and now MRT are overwhelming the public consciousness – especially as the projected cost for the MRT network seems set to increase.

Sabariah recognizes that there is an important piece of the puzzle missing – a coherent public transport policy that will restructure the public transport system and make it into an holistic utility.

Sabariah writes that, “the core functions of SPAD are to draw up of policies for land public transport, planning, regulation and enforcement of laws, rules and regulations concerning land public transport.”

But if you look at the priority of SPAD, it appears to be “selling” the MRT project to the public – rather than working on the policies and master-planning that is supposed to be doing. Sure, SPAD is doing work behind the scenes (like re-licensing all taxis, lorries & public service vehicles in Peninsular Malaysia – but you would not know that from the news reports. It’s all, SPAD + MRT, SPAD + MRT, SPAD + MRT.

Sabariah also noted that it is important to have bus operators provide a service to the public. Her solution is to have bus operators working for Prasarana, providing service while SPAD makes sure everything works.

Unfortunately, Sabariah seems to have forgotten another important piece of the puzzle – public transport users. The examples that she provides, such as Singapore, London, and Hong Kong, all include public transport users in their decision-making. Singapore has a Public Transport Council. Transport for London is chaired by the directly-elected Mayor of London. Finally, Hong Kong’s Department of Transport has to respond to a very vocal LegCo (Legislative Council) and media.

For nearly 4 years, TRANSIT has promoted what we call the 4-Stakeholders Model – the creation of a local public transport authority that plans, organizes and manages public transport service at the local level. The 4-stakeholder groups that would be represented in this authority would be the public & transport-related NGOs, the local & state government, SPAD, and public transport operators.

Instead of having Prasarana run everything, this kind of public transport would be designed and built and run and maintained by local stakeholders who depend greatly on the system being successful.

Summary of 4-Stakeholder’s Model for Klang Valley

  • Chair (1) – Federal Territories Minister
  • Vice Chairs (2, observations only) – Selangor Exco member, KL Mayor
  • Local Government Representatives (3) – 1 officer from DBKL and 2 officers representing the Urban Transport Departments at MPAJ, MPSJ, MBPJ, MBSA, MPK, MPS & MPKj;
  • Representatives from Federal Agencies (3) – 1 representative each from Prasarana, Economic Planning Unit, SPAD;
  • Representatives from Operating Agencies (3) – 1 representative each from RapidKL, KTM Komuter, and 1 representing all other stage bus operators.
  • Representatives from “The Public” (3) – 1 representative each from a local university, an NGO focusing on OKU and universal design, and an NGO focusing on consumer-affairs (especially public transport).

Total 12 sitting members plus chair plus 2 additional members who will observe on behalf of their respective governments.

And that’s it. 15 credible (or should we say, incredible) people to revamp public transport in the Klang Valley.

Notice who would not be in the agency? There’s a special reason for that.

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7 thoughts on “What is the ‘rail’ truth anyways?”

    1. @Gabriel

      Who are they? They sound like some kind of pressure group – might be too political for this. The Klang Valley needs action, not academic discussion.

      Regards, Moaz for TRANSIT

  1. @Moaz Transitmy,

    You must be kidding, actions?? Inefficient actions are more like it. As long as this nation is plagued by endless sight of red tape (bureaucracy), borderless cronyism and seeminly infinity unexposed corruptions/grafts, nothing, I repeat NOTHING can be improve/changed for the better at all!!! May it be academic or actions, everything will be nothing but “science fictions”. So public transport improvements do not involved purely on fast and efficient actions only, like the professor said policies and consistency on enforcing these well grounded public transport policies without the frequent and seemingly “personal preferences” intervene by some top government officials or powerful public figure based on their own interest and likings must be totally eliminated through the pressure of people in the coming general elections or various mass media channels. Or else I’m very sorry to guarantee you that a 50% or even 40% ridership of public transport in Klang Valley is as good as a fairy tale…………never ever after!!!

  2. What has the Ministry of Transport did for the improvement of public transportation since incorporate in err.. 1957? being frank, i dunno their role though..

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