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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Can the MRT address the long-term transport problem?

MUCH will be said and written about the mass rapid transit (MRT) in the next several months with construction expected to begin in July this year. Some will be for it, others will be against it.

At RM36.6bil, the public transport system will be one of the country's largest infrastructure projects. But this figure is for the civil works only. The prices of the trains and land acquisition have yet to be factored in. So the figure will certainly swell.

Why not have more cars fitted to the two-car system?

The building of this new MRT line as opposed to the current monorail and light rail transit must be seen from the perspective of what we know today as our public transport system.

When the monorail and LRT were built in the mid-1990s, Klang Valley has a population of about 3 million. Today, we have a population of 6.6 million. By 2020, it is estimated to be 8 million.

While we were building our monorail and LRT in the mid-1990s, Singapore was extending their MRT system with the first portion of the line ready for service in the late 1980s. Despite a population of just over 3 million in 1990, they opted for the MRT in the 1980s, and not the LRT, monorail or whatever. Today, Singapore's MRT is serving a population of more than 5 million people and that network is constantly being extended.

Over in the Klang Valley, we were building two systems, the monorail and the LRT line. At that time, questions arose why we needed two systems and fragmentise public transport further. Why not have just one system? This question was never answered. The two systems lack integration. To use the monorail, one has to get off and get out of the LRT station, and walk some distance to get on the monorail line, for example between Dang Wangi and Bukit Nenas station.

The people who designed, planned and built the LRT and monorail also did not factor in park-and-ride facilities. They just built a station where they can, put in a line and expect everyone to walk there in the sun and rain.

The result is that today, there are cars parked under the electric lines which electrify the LRT and there is a charge to this. So, in addition to spending about RM5 on a return ticket, there is the RM5 parking charge.

If one has to fork out RM10 to use the LRT or the monorail and yet at the same time, having to bear with the inconvenience, they may as well spend a bit more to have the convenience of driving to the city. That explains our low ridership. For every one ticket we sell, Singapore sells nine, London 16 and Tokyo 48.

All of us know there is a cost to infrastructure. Whether it is road network, bandwidth or public transportation system, it is a sunk cost. As with most public infrastructure projects, there is no profit to be made from it.

So the thing for the Government to do is to consider it as an investment for future years, for future generations. London's underground is about 150 years old. It was the first underground railway system in the world. Today, it serves the Greater London population of more than 7 million, which is about equivalent to Klang Valley's population. Greater London did not have a population of nearly 8 million some 150 years ago, yet they opted to build the underground. Closer home, Singapore did not have a population of 5 million 25 years ago.

When and if we build this MRT, it will not be for the next 30 or 40 years. It is for posterity. In that sense, it need not be wasteful.

But there is a need to be focused here. Do we want to sell more made in Malaysia cars to Malaysians or do we want to improve public transport? It is not possible to have both.

One may ask, why not have more cars fitted to the present two-car LRT system? The LRT started with a two-car system. It can be fitted to a maximum of four cars. The LRT platform is designed to fit only four. The LRT has a carrying capacity of about 30,000 per hour per direction for a two-car system. So there is a cap to capacity. The MRT has 50% more carrying capacity and the car is 50% wider.

What is wasteful is spending money on piecemeal solutions the LRT and monorail, for example to solve a eternal question that hovers around population growth and the need for public transport.

What is wasteful is having two MRT stations just 400m apart from each other.

What is wasteful is building the MRT, while ignoring and not improving the bus, taxi and Komuter system.

Assistant news editor Thean Lee Cheng thinks there is a need to think very long term when investing in infrastructure projects.

By The Star

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