JANUARY 6 — I must have spent several days’ worth of being underground in the various lines of London’s Tube. I’ve been to over 100 of the 270 stations, and in the majority of cases no other form of transport was contemplated in reaching my destination.
London has the oldest subterranean railway system in the world (dating back to 1863) and it has become a vital and iconic component of the city. No doubt some of the stations are dirty and cramped, but more problematic were the seemingly perennial strikes (though they provided an unimpeachable excuse to skive lectures).
By comparison, I found the Metro in Washington DC bland and slow. New York’s Subway has character; more so than the other American or European mass transit systems I’ve tried. Closer to home, I found the MRT in Singapore entirely adequate but was impressed by the Bangkok Skytrain: It’s quite wondrous to be able to complete a journey by boat and elevated train.
In Malaysia I used to take the LRT occasionally from Ampang, and also the KTM Komuter from KL to Seremban when I first returned, but the most frequent train journey for me these days is the KLIA Ekspres.
Thus armed with experiences of mass transit systems in other cities and previous Malaysian services, it was with great excitement that I joined several friends who wanted to try a hipster cafe in Sungai Buloh by boarding our first MRT train at Pusat Bandar Damansara.
After the long escalator up to the platform, my Touch N Go card opened the barrier (free of charge for the time being, but future ticket prices weren’t yet published).
The transparent wall separating the platform and train is not full height (potentially enabling “service interruptions”), but since the trains have to stop at a specific place travellers are able to wait right outside the doors (though unlike Singapore, there are no lines mandating which way the queues should form). Trains were running at six minute intervals: Okay for a public holiday.
First impressions of the train were good. The cars are open-ended, meaning that it is possible to walk from the front window to the back — there is no driver on board. (This should enable efficient commuters to memorise which doors are near to the platform escalators.)
The lighting is bright, the air conditioning not too Arctic, the seats (plastic rather than metallic as on the LRT) are decent and standing space and handles are plentiful.
Bilingual announcements usefully indicate which side the doors will open, though the continuously looping television advertisement quickly got annoying during the half-hour journey. The route map is oddly represented as an oval: A straight line would avoid any geographical misassumptions of the 51km line.
The trains could probably do with more maps of the entire system, which could be enhanced with a representation of the Klang and Gombak rivers and a boundary marking the federal territory.
The view from the train is gorgeous. Golf courses, shop facades and landmark buildings are seen from new angles, and the sunset journey back was stunning; I had to compete with excited children (of all races) for the best spot to record a time-lapse.
At Sungai Buloh station, the security control room featuring dozens of CCTV feeds is reassuringly transparent (so you can watch those watching you) and several cafes awaited customers, many of whom went to the KTM platform to continue their journeys.
There was no feeder bus to our destination so we used a taxi, which charged RM15 without using the meter (the Uber back cost RM3).
That was a black spot on an otherwise enjoyable journey. Looking at the connectivity and efficiency of the service so far, I think it will make a much bigger impact on KL’s economic and social life compared to previous services.
It will no doubt take a long time to wean off the driving and chauffeured classes and from their cars, but as long as the destinations are convenient and the service clean and secure, I’m confident it can be done.
In London, peers of the realm join MPs, investment bankers and impoverished students in the Tube, providing interactions (however fleeting) that also contribute to a sense of civic belonging.
There are political questions about the cost of the MRT, and rightly so. Big infrastructure projects involving many contractors provide opportunities for the creative and corrupt to hide kickbacks and markups.
No matter how good a public service is, policymakers have a duty to ensure good use of taxpayers money, and wastage should be exposed and wrongdoers punished.
The more people who say “jom naik MRT,” the greater that check and balance will be.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.