Our Mrt Should Omit The R It S Always Mt


This piece is not meant to criticise the current government. I am simply pointing out several important and fundamental factors which ought to be considered when planning any large-scale infrastructure project such as the MRT and LRT, to prevent it from failing.
Unfortunately, from what we see today, it appears that the MRT system in the Klang Valley, which commenced operations on July 17, 2017, has failed to play its intended role as a major mode of public transportation.
That is disappointing, as substantial government funds have been spent on the construction of the MRT’s two lines and on their operation and maintenance.
Almost six years later, the twin objectives of increasing public transport usage and reducing the acute traffic congestion in the Klang Valley, have yet to be achieved.
In fact, far from achieving its passenger targets and forecasts, the MRT system is running empty, even as all roads leading into the city and the suburbs are seeing worsening congestion.
Serving the wrong areas
To start off, we must acknowledge that MRT1 was built along the wrong corridor. Residential areas like Mutiara Damansara, Bandar Utama, Taman Tun Dr Ismail and Damansara Heights are occupied by well-to-do families, who have little or no need for public transport.
These households have at least two cars in their driveways, which they are unlikely to abandon in favour of the MRT. Stations located in these neighbourhoods have failed to attract passengers.
The urban residents of these areas can easily afford the costs associated the ownership, maintenance and use of their cars. In fact, they are more likely to swap their existing cars for newer ones every few years or so. That is a part of their lifestyle they are unlikely to change.
These are the same people who demand the improved quality and expansion of our city’s roads and highways to facilitate their personal mobility. Sadly, the authorities have time and again obliged them by spending more of our public funds for this purpose.
The so-called Damansara Heights traffic diversion scheme – a most absurd network of roads built entirely using public funds – is an obvious example of the conflict between public transport and car usage.
Curiously, the massive, elevated road system in the area has been built right below the MRT station there, impeding access to the station.
Passenger count
Many car owners and users are so removed from the public transport market that no amount of reduction in MRT fares will affect their choice. I often take the MRT, and even during peak hours I notice that the carriages are less than 50% occupied.
I even once took a visual count of the number of passengers boarding and alighting at each of these stations, with findings that startled me.
Only six passengers alighted at Mutiara Damansara, while four boarded. At the Bandar Utama station, four passengers got off and three others came on board.
At TTDI, where the residents’ association objected some years ago to the construction and placement of the MRT station there, only five passengers boarded, while two got off.
At Phileo Damansara, where many offices, a hotel and two major golf clubs are located, five passengers alighted and four entered. This station has a large multi-storey car park with hardly any cars inside.
At Damansara Pavilion, where heavy construction has been ongoing for the last three years, four passengers disembarked and no one boarded. Small numbers were also observed at Manulife Semantan, where many office buildings are located.
In my professional opinion, the planners were foolhardy to run the MRT alignment along this high-end conurbation, complete with elaborate stations, only to cater to so few passengers.
Obviously, they did not undertake a survey on potential passenger demand, including by profiling them according to income levels, car ownership and mode of choice.
Identifying an area to be high on car ownership, a factor that will obviously work against MRT usage, is quite a straightforward task.
That Damansara Heights itself has two stations is a good example of how poor planning has blighted the decision on the MRT’s final alignment.
Similarly, the failure to recognise the needs of specific communities, not least the 30,568-student community in the adjacent Universiti Malaya area, a ready market for the MRT, is downright negligent.
Basic characteristics
The main characteristics of an MRT service are found in its moniker. The term “Mass Rapid Transit” refers to the movement (transit) of a large number of passengers (en masse) at high speed and high frequency (rapid). The one we possess, however, clearly lacks these basic characteristics.
In fact, our MRT might as well omit the “R”, since it is always “MT” (or empty)!
It does not carry enough passengers, does not operate at high speed, and does not offer a high-frequency service. In fact, despite the dedicated and elevated track, built at a huge cost, it moves rather slowly.
I recorded a speed of only 40 km per hour (station to station) which is slower than a bus in Jakarta’s Busway or the speed of any e-hailing taxi during congestion periods.
On top of that, the Jakarta Busway carries more passengers at much higher journey speeds across a wider area of coverage. E-hailing taxis also have an edge, providing door-to-door service at faster speeds.
Low speed
Forget about comparisons with Singapore’s MRT or the London Underground, which truly live up to characteristics and function of a mass rapid transit system. In terms of speed, our MRT cannot even compare with the ERL service which plies between KL Sentral and KLIA and runs at 160 km per hour.
Low speeds will not attract passengers. Worse still if the entire journey – home to office – takes longer than a drive.
For car owners, therefore, taking public transport becomes meaningless and the avenue of last resort.
That being the case, any talk of getting regular car users to switch over to the MRT just will not happen.
Until today, the MRT has yet to resolve the “first-mile” and “last-mile” issues. The fortune spent on providing feeder buses has failed to generate the desired results. These buses have been running empty for years.
Moving forward
Until today, fundamental measures applicable to basic public transport planning on how to attract passengers have yet to be put in place. That does not appear to be changing anytime soon. I wonder how much it costs the government to support this expensive exercise daily.
The current unity government must review the multiple failed practices still in operation. We should not repeat the same mistakes.
To ensure better results and planning integrity, this government must devise a proper planning office to consider how the MRT system can meet the fundamentals for an optimised service. Experts must be engaged to look into the matter.
With Penang, Johor Bahru and Kuching looking to put in place their own versions of mass rapid transit systems, the government must ensure that expensive and painful lessons learned in planning, construction and running of the MRT in the Klang Valley are not repeated elsewhere.
To succeed, public transport infrastructure facilities must be planned by experts and not dictated by politicians, as regrettably has been the Malaysian experience. - FMT
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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