Proposed LRT in Penang is both too early and too late — Lim Mah Hui

JANUARY 3 — On November 30, 2018 it was reported that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the MRT project in KL-Klang Valley was overbuilt and too expensive. “It cost (sic) RM50 billion, but the number of passengers using the MRT is very small, about 130,000 only. That’s not enough to give any return.”

He continued, “When you build something that will only have full ridership maybe 20 or 30 years from now, it is too early to build. You can build in stages.”

This was confirmed by Gamuda’s group managing director Datuk Lin Yun Ling, who said “it was too big and too luxurious.” He also highlighted that the Putra LRT network took about 20 years to reach ridership of 250,000 per day, compared with its ridership of 50,000 per day during the first year of operations.

So what about the Penang government’s proposed LRT, from Komtar to the Penang airport and the to be reclaimed three islands, estimated to cost RM8 billion?

The proposed LRT is too early for the same reasons that Dr Mahathir adduced for the MRT; it is too late because the LRT technology will soon be superseded by newer technology, in particular the Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART), that is cheaper, faster, more scalable and flexible.

Under the state approved Penang Transport Master Plan of 2013, Halcrow, the original transport consultant, recommended a combination of modern trams and BRT as appropriate public transport systems. However, the SRS consortium made up of Gamuda, Ideal Property and Loh Phoy Yen Holdings, the project delivery partner for the PTMP, changed them to LRT and monorail.

To justify a more expensive and expansive system, the ridership forecast was significantly inflated. SRS estimated initial ridership (in 2023) at 42 million per year, or 115,000 per day — an unrealistic number. To understand this, we compare it with KL’s experience with its rail systems.

Actual daily ridership fell far short of projected ridership for all the LRT, monorail and MRT lines. After operating for two decades, not one line has reached its projected ridership target. The 2017 actual versus projected ridership for LRT1 was 97 per cent (after 20 years); 66 per cent for LRT2 (after 21 years), 47 per cent for monorail (after 16 years). The MRT1 started operation in mid 2017 and compared to the 400,000 projected daily ridership, its actual was 149,000 in third quarter 2018. (Ministry of Transport statistics)

The MRT line has a catchment population of 1.2 million, whereas the population catchment in the George Town and the southern part of Penang island is less than 350,000 people.

Another relevant comparison is Rapid Penang’s total daily ridership which amounted to only 90,000 after more than 10 years of operation with 305 buses plying 71 routes throughout the whole state.

SRS estimated the annual operating cost of the LRT at RM170 million. For the operation to break even, daily ridership would have to be 115,000 at an average of RM4 per trip. Even taking into account tourist arrivals, it is inconceivable that initial daily ridership for the Penang LRT can reach 115,000.

If the actual ridership is 20 per cent of the projected, the state is staring at an annual deficit of RM130 million compared to the Penang state budget of RM700 million in 2017.

Roger Teoh, a PhD transport student at Imperial College, raised the same concerns of inflated ridership and large potential losses. He added, “The unrealistic 42 million ridership forecast has been raised four times in public, but we have yet to hear a response from the Penang government.” (Free Malaysia Today, September 13, 2018).

In short, the admonition of Dr Mahathir for the MRT rings true for the Penang LRT. “When you build something that will only have full ridership maybe 20 or 30 years fromnow, it is too early to build."

If it is too early to build an LRT that is over-sized and overly expensive, it is too late, i.e. behind time, to build an LRT when more up-to-date technology is available to deliver the same level of service at a much lower cost.

In the last couple of years, the Chinese manufacturer, CRRC, has made a breakthrough with the introduction of the autonomous rapid transit (ART) or, in layman’s term, the trackless tram. This combined the technology of high speed rail with that of buses.

The ART runs on ordinary roads guided by sensors that follow routes on virtual tracks. Since there are no permanent tracks to lay, construction is cheap and fast. The trackless system has low construction and maintenance cost.

A trackless tram costs around A$6-A$8 million (RM17.5-23.3 million) per km, which is 93 per cent cheaper relative to the light rail system in Sydney, costing A$120 million per km. Furthermore, having no permanent tracks, it allows for dynamic and flexible routing depending on traffic condition and future developments.

The system was first tested in Zhujou and has received excellent reviews in Australia and Europe. Professor Peter Newman, a famous transport expert, recently visited China to study the ART system and returned convinced that it is a transformative transit technology. He said cities are lining up to introduce trackless trams all over Australia.

Given this fast changing technology, it would be irresponsible for the Penang state government to not review the proposed LRT and monorail systems which are out-dated, over-capacity, too expensive, and inflexible.

* Lim Mah Hui is a former international banker, professor and George Town city councillor

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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