Interesting FMT interview with SPAD chair Syed Hamid Albar (Update #1)

Updated with comments from TRANSIT!

TRANSIT has taken note of a series of articles in Free Malaysia Today, detailing an interview with SPAD Chair Syed Hamid Albar.

TRANSIT will reserve our comments until the entire series is posted. In the meantime you can find links to the articles (3 at the time of this posting) after the jump:

Update: TRANSIT had reserved our comments and then got so busy we didn’t have time to make these comments. But we are ready now!

Ok, first, here are those articles listed:

And now, the articles in full with comments from TRANSIT:

Traffic masterplan needs PM’s green light (Free Malaysia Today, 29 August 2011)

PETALING JAYA: Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s stamp of approval is needed before the country gets rid of its burgeoning traffic congestion.

Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) chairman Syed Hamid Albar said the upcoming Public Transport Master Plan needed the green light from Najib before it could be nationally adopted.

[TRANSIT: Nationally adopted? It’s really a KL-focused plan, is it not?]

The Cabinet must have a look at the plan, he told FMT during an interview last week.

[TRANSIT: The public must have a look at the plan too. Actually, we should see it first.]

“After we have submitted the plan, the prime minister will have a look at it and pass it to the Cabinet. If he disagrees with it, then we will submit our objections. It’s up to the prime minister to make his decision. The final word is with him,” he added.

Syed Hamid said that SPAD was not an autonomous government department. Citing the SPAD Act 2010, he explained that the commission still came under the prime minister’s purview.

[TRANSIT: SPAD is a Commission and it “advises” the Minister (in this case the Prime Minister) according to the SPAD Act 2010. That sound independent enough to us.]

The masterplan is expected to see a September release. It would supposedly consist of a series of guidelines aimed at solving the congestion problem.

[TRANSIT: We were originally told that elements of the plan would be released to the public in April 2011 or June 2011. September is almost over.]

Beyond that, little is known about the masterplan’s actual details, with SPAD and other government officials seemingly more focused on the upcoming My Rapid Transit (MRT).

During its official July launch, SPAD confirmed that the MRT, through its parent programme – the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) – was more important than the masterplan.

[TRANSIT: To respond to that attitude we provide this reminder: If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.]

At the time, Syed Hamid said that the MRT was part of the masterplan, but declined to reveal further details.

“I would not be able to tell you what we are going to adopt… Let us complete what we are looking at, then we will submit the masterplan to the government,” he said.

The masterplan, Syed Hamid said, would also chart the course for individual cities’ transport plans.

“The masterplan is a very good framework. Once you have it for Kuala Lumpur, it would not be the end. After that, there would be local plans… with the general guidelines based on the masterplan,” he added.

[TRANSIT: In order to make the plans work effectively in various cities, there would have to be a clear framework, a plan for action, implementation & review, and most importantly, stakeholder participation in all cities. And SPAD will have to take a “hands off” approach and remain as a central regulator, not a local organizing authority. The question is, can SPAD take the hands off approach?]

Aware of stage buses

Nevertheless, the SPAD chairman appeared confident of the plan, adding that it contained a myraid [sic.] of proposals and concerns from various transport associations across the country.

[TRANSIT: If the master plan can have local considerations that would be a good thing. However, we do not want a plan that simply sums up all the problems and throws one solution at it. SPAD’s role needs to be that they facilitate and encourage the creation of an effective framework that gets all stakeholders to work together to tackle these problems – rather than coming down from up high in Putrajaya (or KL Sentral) with a one-size-fits-all solution.]

“We are looking at all these issues in the masterplan,” he said, touching on city buses and their trundle towards extinction.

“Our stage buses are all making losses… The situation is that they’re not making money… So now we are studying it… (and realise) that there is a need for a new way of handling the stage buses.

“So we are studying it (the problem) and are going to ready the masterplan and make proposals (solutions over the stage buses) to the government,” Syed Hamid said.

According to the Pan Malaysian Bus Operators Association (PMBOA), many non-Klang Valley city bus operations were in dire straits.

Due to rising equipment and diesel costs, many bus companies had to close shop as a result, leaving their regulars stranded.

One prime example is the Seremban Town Service (STS), which abandoned most of its routes, and chopped off its bus fleet by at least 80%.

TRANSIT Says:

Aside from our comments above, we need to make it clear that SPAD cannot have its fingers in every public transport pie in the country.

The whole point of creating SPAD was to have an effective national regulator to facilitate the improvements necessary for public transport. But SPAD is not supposed to be doing all the work, and certainly not supposed to be prioritizing one project (MRT) over any other.

Our hope for SPAD was that it would become an independent organization that would regulate, facilitate and help fund improvements to public transport throughout Malaysia. Instead we seem to have a very KL-Centric, hands-on organization that may be forcing itself to micromanage problem after problem rather than creating a framework for solutions.

The next article explains some of the reasons for that overwhelming KL-centric approach.

Why all roads lead to Klang Valley (Free Malaysia Today, 31 August 2011)

PETALING JAYA: Size, location and economic importance are some of the reasons why the Klang Valley is getting all the public transport attention.

However, Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) chairman Syed Hamid Albar denied that the rest of Malaysia was neglected over matters of transport.

“At present, it seems as though we are interested in the Klang Valley. It’s got the biggest (traffic) problems, it’s the capital… a certain population lives here,” he told FMT in an exclusive interview last week.

“I don’t think you should give the impression that we don’t care about the other states… The Klang Valley is a test bed. It’s where we are doing the first project,” he added, referring to the My Rapid Transit (MRT).

[TRANSIT: Actually, TRANSIT suggested to SPAD CEO Mohd. Nur Kamal that they use Klang (not the Klang Valley but Klang town & environs) as a test bed for their solutions. Our reasoning is that Klang town is more like most other Malaysian towns affected by increased suburban development, the hollowing out of the city core, and declining infrastructure – problems that can be addressed with improvements in city planning, city building & public transport.]

Spearheaded by the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), the MRT may be Malaysia’s biggest infrastructure project yet. Only one line – the Sungai Buloh-Kajang track – has been announced thus far. It has also been estimated by some to cost at least RM53 billion.

Syed Hamid said that the commission had been talking to various transit associations as well as state governments over public transport.

Citing the Public Transport Master Plan expected to be released in September, he said that SPAD’s idea behind tackling Malaysia’s traffic problems was to “move together”.

“We are not saying that while we are focusing on the Klang Valley, we are not doing other things. Let us have the plan so we can move together,” he said.

Backbone of public transport

He hinted that Malaysia was pushing for more rail-based developments, especially between the states.

“We are making the MRT the backbone of the public transport system (in Kuala Lumpur). And we are also studying a high-speed rail, the double-tracking (electrification project), the ETS (Electic Train Service) for Ipoh.”

[TRANSIT: The rail “backbone” argument is a classic one. However, our response is less classic but quite inspired. Whenever we hear the “backbone” argument we remind everyone that the backbone exists to protect the nervous system – and the peripheral nervous system is as important as the central nervous system.

Meaning, our bus & taxi “nerves” are as important as our railway “central nervous system” protected by a rail ‘backbone.’] 

“So there are many… the catalysts for development in this region will be rail-based. I think once there is connectivity between the states, it would be easier for us to plan other things,” he said.

It is easy to see that the Klang Valley is getting the lion’s share of public transport developments.

According to the 2010 Population and Census Report, more than 7.1 million people live in both Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.

[TRANSIT: Population is important but so is population density.]

Economic opportunities in the region are also higher than the rest of the country, causing many from across to migrate here.

This has led to many large-scale projects mushrooming across Malaysia’s most populous region. Much of Kuala Lumpur – and neighbouring cities – is home to multiple railway lines and bus routes.

Rail services include the RapidKL Ampang and Kelana Jaya LRT (Light Rail Transit) lines, the KL Monorail, KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu) Komuter, Express Rail Link (ERL) and the upcoming MRT.

Buses, on the other hand, were plied by companies such as RapidKL, MetroBus, Transnasional and Selangor Omnibus.

Banking on public transport

The Klang Valley also acts as a hub for many express buses in the Peninsula, as well as the KTM Intercity and ETS.

Even with the large number of projects, Syed Hamid agreed that the public transport system in the Klang Valley was not efficient, especially where connectivity was concerned.

“It’s not properly connecting, that’s why we’re improving on the Monorail (and other lines)… In the future, we are going to buy more cars for all the lines,” he said.

On the purchase of 38 new EMUs (Electric Multiple Units) for the KTM Komuter, he hinted that the government might order more four-car coaches for the Kelana Jaya RapidKL LRT.

[TRANSIT: Buying new trains is not going to improve connectivity. Some projects to improve connectivity are under way (Hang Tuah interchange is probably the best example) but the real way to build connectivity is to plan early & properly. One rail system, using one railway technology, not 5 separate systems using 5 separate technologies.]

“But the biggest problem for us is the buses and taxis. In our thinking, the buses are to have two approaches: the BET (Bus Express Transit) and BRT (Bus Rapid Transport),” Syed Hamid said.

He was confident that these bus systems and train upgrades would entice Malaysians to take more public transport, and result in a higher transit riderships across the board.

“When we (SPAD) were formed, the use of public transport (share) was only 12% (in KL). Now with continuous improvement, it has gone up to 17%,” he said.

Syed Hamid added that with additional developments, he hoped to see 25% of the Klang Valley using public transport by the end of 2012.

TRANSIT Says:

It is certainly nice to hear from SPAD that they have some plans for improving public transport beyond just the Klang Valley. Too bad that Chair Syed Hamid Albar did not reveal any information about those plans and instead, revealed basic plans about new types of bus services – as well as promoting the MRT.

As interested as TRANSIT is in the MRT project, we are more interested in seeing SPAD creating the fundamental framework that will result in improvements to public transport throughout the country, rather than just being concentrated on the Klang Valley.

The problem is that in the years that we have been following public transport issues, we have yet to see anyone express any interest in creating that framework. It seems that there is more interest in preserving the ineffective systems that we already have, and trying to find ways to pretend to make them more “efficient” – instead of recognizing that these systems are failing at a fundamentally basic level and are in serious need of overhaul and change.

Our public transport system is slowly choking to death. A few minor tweaks in governance are not going to be enough to save it.

Poor transport services: ‘Our hands are tied’ (Free Malaysia Today, 1 September 2011)

PETALING JAYA: Heads will not roll if the trains are late, the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) said.

SPAD chairman Syed Hamid Albar said that his commission could not punish inefficient public transport companies as it pleased.

“What do you want us to do?” he asked in an interview with FMT last week. He was asked if SPAD had the power to punish these companies with fines or threaten dismissals if they continued with inefficient services.

“If you do that, there will be a failure of natural justice of human rights. You have to give them a show-cause (letter)… there are processes… you can’t just simply take action.”

[TRANSIT: So what about all the procedures outlined in the SPAD Act?]

Syed Hamid said that SPAD had two roles to play – as a public transport authority and a regulator.

[TRANSIT: Our recommendation was that SPAD be a regulator and financier – not a public transport authority]

But, he added, the commission’s job was not to be judge, jury and executioner.

“What you are asking us is to make sure we run the rails… We do not have the.. the rules (that say): ‘If you come late, we will fine you.’”

[TRANSIT: But the SPAD Act says that SPAD has the right & authority & responsibility to create such rules & regulatory structures.]

“You are asking us to be the investigator, prosecutor and the judge. We can’t. We can’t take the whole process on. [TRANSIT: Why not?] But we can regulate and moderate things,” he said.

Onus on bus companies

Nevertheless, he said it was up to owners of these companies to rectify their own problems.

“It has to be the companies… they must take action… What we have done so far is to call them and tell them that the public is not very happy. (Then we ask), ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

“We can’t just punish and sack them. No company in the world can do that!” he said.

[TRANSIT: Wrong. Really, really, really wrong. TRANSIT can easily recount examples of where public transport operating companies have been “sacked” directly or not had their contracts renewed, or had the government buy them out.

The best and most recent example would be the Victoria Government’s transfer of the Yarra Trams concession in Melbourne from Transdev TSL to a new consortium. There was also the refusal to renew the contract with Connex Melbourne for the suburban metro trains (now called METRO by the new train operating company, Metro Trains Melbourne).

Those are just two examples from Melbourne. There are also many examples from the UK, both in London and other areas, where train operating companies and bus operating companies have had their franchises taken away by the organizing authorities.

In London itself, Transport for London (http://www.tfl.gov.uk) has bought back all assets of London Underground, taken over the Docklands Light Railway and Silverlink Metro railway services (now called the London Overground) and the Croydon tram service (now Croydon Tramlink) – and tendered the operations out to separate companies. TfL also operates a number of bus services through its subsidiary companies.

So once again, Syed Hamid is wrong here. He has already said that SPAD is the public transport authority. Being the authority means having the authority & will to act.] 

Malaysians, especially Klang Valley residents, have had to deal with poor public transport services over the years.

Trains, excepting perhaps the Light Rail Transit (LRT), are frequently late. Mechanical failures are common in Keretapi Tanah Melayu’s (KTM) Komuter coaches and hour-long delays are common.

Buses are not exempt from complaints as well, with some users having to wait a long time for their rides to arrive.

Even so, Syed Hamid claimed that he was well aware of the problems affecting public transport users, and their indifference to government promises towards improvement.

“I agree. There is a lack of public confidence in public transport. That’s why we need to make our actions more conspicious,” he said.

He added that checks-and-balances might be a good way to keep Malaysia’s public transport in check.

Nasty tweets

“I think there should be KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), measurements of performance, compliance and failure of compliance,” he said.

[TRANSIT: Why aren’t there already? SPAD has already had 9 months of official operations.]

He said developed countries with better public transport systems often put in these measures to make sure that the trains and buses arrived at their stations on time.

[TRANSIT: Developed country or not, many of the problems with service are quite similar and often come from the same negative attitudes.]

“It should be part of our policy… but all these are possibilities… we have not finalised the various issues,” he added.

However, Syed Hamid said that Malaysia’s public transport issues could not be solved overnight.

He complained that many people, including public transport NGOs, were not being fair to SPAD over this matter.

“I get very nasty tweets from all sorts of public transport NGOs. They think SPAD must have a magic wand, and must be able to do wonders overnight,” he said.

[TRANSIT: Guilty as charged? Actually, we rarely tweet Syed Hamid directly, but we do get included in a lot of re-tweets that include him as well. And why not tweet to @Syedhamidalbar, since SPAD does not have an official social networking presence yet?]

Syed Hamid added that SPAD needed more time to clean up the public transport system before it could be on par with the rest of the world.

“I will not pretend (that everything is solved). We are here to make changes. Give us time. We cannot just change things that have been there the whole time,” he said.

TRANSIT Says:

TRANSIT believes that, unfortunately, Syed Hamid Albar is confident that he can use phrases like “our hands are tied” because Malaysians are not familiar with the laws governing SPAD – namely:

TRANSIT asks the public to give 1 hour of your time to read & understand these laws, so that the public can understand what authority & powers SPAD has, as well as the obligation of other government entities to support SPAD.

That’s all we are really going to say. Know our laws and know the powers that our Parliament has given to SPAD.

If SPAD’s “hands are tied” it is clear that this is just one point of view. The SPAD Act shows clearly that SPAD’s hands are not tied and they have the right, responsibility and authority to step forward and improve public transport in Malaysia.

The only person that SPAD needs to inform & advise is the Prime Minister. If SPAD’s “hands are tied” as Syed Hamid is alleging, then the only person who could be doing that would be Prime Minister Najib himself.

And why would Prime Minister Najib want to tie the hands of SPAD? It does not make sense.

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