Debunking the Greater KL MRT: Let's not be taken for a ride!Written by Gabriel Lim
For decades we have endured the nightmarish traffic congestion in Kuala Lumpur, no thanks to the promotion of our profoundly uncompetitive national automobile industry. There is a saying that one cannot arrange more than 3 appointments in KL a day.
The rude and reckless pink minibuses were driven out of streets in 1998, prior to the XVI Commonwealth Games. However, due to the unreliably low frequency and the lack of connectivity, the government-ordered consolidation of numerous traditional bus operators into two players, namely Intrakota and Cityliner did not result in the fantasised benefit.
Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (Malayan Railway Ltd, KTMB), the national rail operator began its suburban commuter train service in 1995. Three LRT and Monorail lines were planned, but incompetency in routing the alignments through high-density area (for example MidValley, SS2 or Telawi...) eventhough cutting by closely, coupled with the long waiting interval of feeder buses, means while it does make commuting convenient for those who live along or can drive / be driven to stations, it's simply not a viable option for those living further from the tracks. Out of the 6 million trips that take place daily in Klang Valley, only 17% is made by public transport.
CONFUSING AND WORRYING ANNOUNCEMENTS
Fast forward to June 2010. The Greater Kuala Lumpur Mass Rapit Transit (MRT, later renamed MyRapidTransit) network project was announced by Prime Minister Najib Razak in the Parliament during the tabling of 10th Malaysia Plan (RMK-10), to the excitement of many. It was later included in the Economic Transformation Project (ETP) as one of the Entry Point Project (EPP) under the Greater Kuala Lumpur National Key Economic Area (NKEA).
We were first told that the cost would be RM 35 billion, making it the single most pricey project ever undertaken by the country so far. And its price tag kept on ballooning. The last time I checked, the figure stood at RM 54 billion, for the first line alone.
Days prior to Najib's announcement, local conglomerate joint venture MMC-Gamuda, the main contractor for the Ipoh - Padang Besar railway double tracking and electrification project, revealed to the press that they had proposed an MRT system in Kuala Lumpur, comprising three lines, namely 1, Damansara - Serdang line, 2, Kepong - Cheras line, and 3, Circle line.
They were later appointed as the Project Delivery Partner (PDP) for the government's MRT project, whose fee will be a certain percentage of the total sum. Yet as PDP, they will be wielding the power to decide on the winning bidders of work parcels. The more contractors get, the more they get. Those suspecting the conflict of interest please stand up?
Ultimately, the three lines planned under the ETP's Greater KL NKEA are 1, Sungai Buluh - Kajang line (SBK line), 2, Circle line and 3, Kuala Lumpur - Port Klang line. We can safely assume that ETP's SBK line is the modified version of the previously planned Kota Damansara - Cheras LRT line. In late 2011, Circle line was shortened to a half circle, the other half to be made up by taking over current LRT network's Chan Sow Lin - Ampang stretch. Also, the Klang portion was downgraded to an LRT line originating from Kelana Jaya. Many colourful versions indeed, we definitely need to dig deeper into our pockets.
But will it solve our root problems?
SHORTCOMING 1: COMPLACENT HIGHWAY ALIGNMENT
The authorities' misplaced insistence to route the MRT to the future Warisan Merdeka hundred-storey skyscraper by passing beneath Jalan Sultan heritage shops, and then crossing without interchanging with the current Ampang LRT around Hang Tuah, I guess is well-documented.
According to the alignment map available at the public display sessions ran from February 14 to May 14, 2011, between Ikea to Pusat Bandar Damansara (Help Institute), SBK Line will simply follow first the Damansara Puchong Highway (LDP) and then Sprint's Damansara Link. On the Cheras side, upon exiting the tunnel near Maluri, it will follow the Cheras - Kajang Highway all the way until Sungai Long flyover.
Simply running MRT trains alongside urban highways, without making inroads into population hubs reveals utmost expediency. Before the MRT was built in Singapore, the authorities studied the bus passengers' travelling pattern in 1979 and 1980 to identify what the most common travel patterns were. Over here, are there any finding that justify MRT tracks running parallel to highways? If yes, why not put them on display as well?
By having a station next to Eastin hotel toll plaza in Petaling Jaya, rather than deep inside Section 17's "town centre" (where Sentosa cinema once stood before the fire), or at Plaza Phoenix instead of right at the heart of Taman Connaught shops, our MRT is ignoring a lot of passenger, because one, the line fails to penetrate commuters' intended destinations, and two, because the feeder bus which the authorities imagined could close this gap will simply be inadequate, if history is any reference.
The same applies to our current LRT extension too. They failed to find ways to bring the stations closer to where crowds are, or where commuters want to go. For instance, Ampang line's extension will include a Bandar Puteri station in Puchong. But it will be located at the current Ladang Castlefield Tamil Primary School beside the LDP highway, on the opposite side of Bandar Puteri shops. When going to the stations means choking up highway flyovers, our LRT extension and MRT might worsen the congestion they are supposed to eliminate! If public convenience and accessibility is never the top priority, what is?
Back to the SBK Line, if they really think the two highways boast huge commuting demands, why not first improve the current bus service? As of now, RapidKL's U82 runs from KL Sentral to Damansara Uptown, Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) and 1 Utama mall, while U40 plies between Central Market, Maluri, Cheras 9th Mile and Kajang.
According to little birds, U82 only runs every 45 minutes. If their studies found that the demand there warrants an MRT line, why the lacklustre bus service now? If the current bus frequency seems sufficient, why the need for a billion dollar MRT?
SHORTCOMING 2: LACK OF CROSS-PLATFORM INTERCHANGE
When two rail lines meet, usually an interchange will be built. In Kuala Lumpur, Masjid Jamek is the only interchange between the 2 LRT lines. While at Titiwangsa and Hang Tuah, Ampang Line is connected to Monorail via walkways, Kelana Jaya line passengers must walk quite a distance out of KL Sentral and Dang Wangi stations to find their Monorail counterparts.
All these are one-to-one interchanges. Someone from either direction of Line A must alight here, squeeze through the same staircase and walkways to reach the Line B Station, no matter which direction of Line B they are going. That's what we call bottlenecks.
If we take a leaf from Hong Kong or Singapore's design, surely we will find a more thoughtful configuration - the Cross-Platform Interchange. The best design comprises of two stations next to each other, which both Lines A and B passes, and each of the stations will have two island platforms, one above another. We don't need to travel far, there's one such example in Singapore, with City Hall and Raffles Place stations forming the twinned interchange.
Say the 2 lines are Lines A and B, therefore the 4 destinations will be A1, A2, B1 and B2. There will be Stations C and D, with platform C1 and C2, D1 and D2 respectively. In this way, no matter which direction you come from, you will meet the other line not once but twice. At both times, a train from the other line will be calling at the other side of the same platform.
So when a Line A train going to A1 stops at Station C, passengers can board a Line B train to B2 by walking across the platform. When this same train calls at Station D, a Line B train going to B2 will be just across the platform. With four separate platforms, passengers from A1, A2, B1 and B2 will each have a dedicated platform to switch to the other line without even climbing stairs. Less crowd, less trouble, isn't that lovely?
The twinned Cross Platform Interchange design is indeed the King of Interchanges. However, it's impossible to integrate old and new lines this way, since older lines are built. My question is, will the authorities incorporate this design where MRT's future SBK line and future Circle line meet? If not, why not? We didn't include this design when building the LRTs earlier, eventhough these designs were readily available even then. Why are we again spending tens of billions without learning from our experience?
SHORTCOMING 3: UNFULFILLABLE CAPACITY CLAIM
Hong Kong uses multiple types of trains for its MTR network. The most common (MTR M-Train EMU) has 45 seats and space for 268 standees, meaning about 300 passengers per car, but it comes in eight car configurations for each set. As for Singapore's older North-South and East-West lines, they are using six-car trains. Their most common Kawasaki C151 trains can accomodate 1,920 passengers in the whole rake.
Over here in Greater KL, the officially publicised ridership target is 30,000 people per hour per direction (PPHPD), and since the rolling stock (trains) they proposed to buy is Bombardier's Movia, with a capacity of 1,200 per rake, each direction needs 25 trips per hour to ferry 30,000 people.
Since the one-way journey of 51 KM takes 90 minutes to complete, each direction needs 38 trains running back to back to prevent a service breakdown, as well as hitting the stated ridership target of 30,000 PPHPD. That means 76 sets for both directions, with a few more for back-up. So why according to the public display, we are only procuring 58 trains?
LOW POPULATION DENSITY MEANS FEWER POTENTIAL PASSENGERS
Weakness of SBK line proposal aside, we should first ask a fundamental questions: Does our population density really qualify us for an MRT system? Granted, no roads in KL is shielded from traffic congestion, and mind you, it's not just during peak hours. But is MRT the solution?
Klang Valley with 2,793 square kilometre of land is inhabited by 8 million people, thus the population density is 2,864 person per square KM. In comparison, it is 7,148 for Hong Kong, and 6,349 for Singapore.
Hong Kong and Singapore's population is concentrated in several main corridors, mainly made up of "new towns" full of high rise housing, while over here, terrace houses spreaded out everywhere in the valleys, plains, even hill slopes, creating a growing urban sprawl. Apparently, we have more focal points to be covered, presenting us a more complicated travel pattern, which a handful of MRT lines (and hourly feeder bus) can hardly cope.
Residents of sprawling neighbourhoods tend to emit more pollution per person and suffer more traffic fatalities, because the lack of sufficient public transport alternatives. To attract them onto the public transport bandwagon, more buses and trains than we care to admit are needed.
By ignoring the other modes of transport, a single MRT line can't satisfy everyone's need of reaching a variety of destinations. And a public transport system that cannot fetch people from any Point A to any Point B is doomed to fail.
AN ALL-ENCOMPASSING RAIL NETWORK IS TOO COSTLY
Let's think about how many corridors we should serve, in order to provide adequate accessibility to as many people as possible. Towards the South, we have Pudu, Cheras, Kajang as one major corridor, while Sungai Besi, Sri Petaling, Serdang and Putrajaya as another.
SBK obviously leaves out one for the other, and even between corridors, it is filled with populated areas, such as Alam Damai, Balakong, Sungai Chua, Bangi etc. Today, some are living as far as Semenyih, Bukit Beruntung or even Puncak Alam, despite working in downtown.
Can we afford to build a web of rail lines that criss-cross everywhere to capture passengers, like what they have in Tokyo or London? Even without leakage through corruption and patronage, the permanent feature of Umno rule, there is simply too huge a financial burden, for our manufacturing industry is stagnant, and the nation is over-relying on oil and gas revenues, which we know won't last.
WHY NOT BRT?
Perhaps it's time the numerous governing agencies wake up to their senses, and stop dreaming about spending a huge chunk of our hard-earned money to serve small pockets of population, knowing that with that kind of budget, we can build a comprehensive network of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines, expanding the coverage to every corner of the urban sprawl, without losing out on the comfort level and efficiency.
For the uninitiated, BRT is a bus system with large comfortable bus and dedicated lanes, running at high frequency just like trains. Encoupled with flyovers to bypass traffic light junctions and ticket sales at the bus stops rather than inside the bus, it can be as smooth and efficient as MRTs, built at a faction of its cost. It is sometimes implemented to build up the passenger level of a particular corridor, which later will be evaluated for MRT feasibility.
The expensive system can only serve a limited corridor, while the more affordable system can fetch more at lower cost. For countries stuck in the middle income trap, the juxtaposition cannot be clearer.
Mega projects beget mega failures. If not thoughtfully planned, MRT is going to create huge adverse effects on our urban planning, apart from poking a gigantic hole on our national coffers. Parliamentary Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim echos this view too. To correct a faulty design, we may spend many times more than what we can save from not doing it properly now.
It's better for us to be cognizant about the fact that, while certain conglomerates might profit from a useless system, the members of the public unfortunately won't. We aren't even clear whether the GDP growth as envisioned is stimulated by the one-off construction expenditure, or the benefits of better connectivity and sustained efficiency that it enables. To be fair, there is really no urgency to rush through this proposal unless someone is eager to transfer national wealth into their own accounts, fearing they might have no more access to it after the upcoming election.
Perhaps the most prudent way of halting this madness is to go back to the drawing board, provide all the statistics and study findings, and invite every stakeholder to share their views. We can achieve this if Selangor municipalities withhold the Development Order (D.O.) of this MRT construction until all issues are settled satisfactorily, as safeguarding the public interest is everyone's duty. Surely Greater KL MyRapidTransit has many more strengths and shortcomings. What is your verdict?