In 1882, work commenced on Malaya’s first railway track, a 16km stretch connecting Taiping and Port Weld (now Kuala Sepetang), Perak. This railway opened in 1885 to allow the British to move tin and other commodities to Port Weld for export, and was built using foreign labour supervised by British engineers.
Change picked up pace in the post-Merdeka era, with the country gradually acquiring skills in civil and structural engineering that allowed it to build roads, bridges, viaducts, and tunnels. Landmark developments in this era include the formation of the Institution of Engineers Malaysia in 1959.
Many engineering firms were set up in rapid succession in the 1970s, as more Malaysians obtained training both locally and abroad, including Gamuda, which began operations in 1976 in Ipoh.
The company evolved rapidly until, by 2001, it was confident enough to propose the Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel to alleviate flooding in central Kuala Lumpur, which it completed in 2007 (and which CNN has dubbed “one of the world’s greatest tunnels”).
In 2002, Gamuda successfully tendered for one of the 11 civil works packages along the 43km alignment of Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Metropolitan MRT, marking its entry into rail-related developments.
At Kaohsiung, Gamuda was responsible for the design, construction, supervision, and commissioning of two parallel underground tunnels, each 3.86km long, and two underground stations, the two-storey Fongshan Junior High School station and the four-level Dadong station located in the deepest section of the entire MRT line – 28.3m beneath road level.
Added to another four cut-and-cover tunnels, the total underground portion built by Gamuda in Taiwan came up to 4.8km.
Buoyed by the success in Taiwan, Gamuda then partnered with MMC Corporation Bhd to take on the northern portion of KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu) Bhd’s electrified double track project from Ipoh to Padang Besar, Perlis, from 2008 to 2014.
The joint venture completed the project that now enables commuters to complete the 325km journey in half the time it used to take, boosting tourism and other businesses and effectively changing the face of rail transportation in Peninsular Malaysia.
With this project under its belt, Gamuda had accumulated sufficient knowledge and expertise to propose the three-line Klang Valley MRT to the Government, consisting of the Sungai Buloh-Kajang Line (the now-completed Line 1), the Sungai Buloh-Serdang-Putrajaya Line (the under-construction Line 2), as well as the proposed Circle Line (Line 3) to connect Line 1 and 2 with other existing LRT and Komuter lines in the Klang Valley.
Malaysia is now in a golden era of rail, with several more lines proposed, such as the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high speed rail, the 688km East Coast Rail Line (from Port Klang to Wakaf Bharu, Kelantan), and the 200km line from Gemas in Negri Sembilan to Johor Baru, which forms the southern portion of KTMB’s electrified double track project.
“We have come a long way since the Kaohsiung MRT project,” says Datuk Ubull Din Om, managing director of Gamuda Engineering Sdn Bhd in a recent interview.
“Our expertise in civil and structural work in railway construction, among other types of construction, is already well demonstrated,” he adds.
Gamuda’s civil works include building bridges, depots, tunnels, stations, embankments, viaducts, elevated guideways, and so on. Railway systems work is the area that Gamuda is mastering handily, following its experience with the northern electrified double track project for KTMB.
While there are many players in the civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical fields in the country, not many can lay claim to have in depth experience in the most critical aspects of the railway, the ones which determine safety, such as signalling and trackwork.
According to Gamuda Engineering Sdn Bhd executive director Szeto Wai Loong, who was heavily involved in the electrified double track project, Gamuda’s work in the systems component back then involved trackwork and power supply, and a little of the signalling aspects.
“The challenging aspect is systems integration, and I think we are the first local company do all the integration, starting with EDTP. In those days, KTMB gave a lot of trackwork and systems jobs to companies from India, with a lot of civil work subcontracted to local contractors.
“For that project, we were the first local contractor that integrated all the system works with civil works. It was quite challenging for us. One of the high level aspects that we learned was systems integration,” he says. (See “Making it all mesh” below.)
On the electrified double track project, Gamuda honed its skills in integrating the civil infrastructure work with the system aspects, along with the track and stations so that the entire railway system project could be executed according to a seamless schedule and sequencing.
“That is why we were confident when we went into the MRT project, and here, we even improved integration by taking up roles in the design of the rolling stock (together with Siemens), as well as the central control and operations centre,” adds Szeto.
To boost its prowess in the systems side of railways, Gamuda Engineering roped in Mahadi Mahmud as general manager for systems.
“For the KVMRT (Klang Valley MRT), we are doing things from A to Z, or from 1 to 10. It is a full scope,” says Mahadi, who explains how the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line became the way it is.
“You start from ridership forecasting, you write the specifications, the scope of work itself. For example, we identified that the Sungai Buloh-Kajang area is a corridor that is not served by public transport, or inadequately served. It is an area where no rail network is available.
“From the start, Gamuda defined the concept and worked with various parties to cover both the civil and systems aspects. We are expanding in both dimensions, led by in-house expertise,” says Mahadi.
Gamuda, says Ubull, is consistently looking out for any opportunity to upgrade the skillsets of its local workforce, so that the country can be weaned off its dependence on expatriates for the more technically complex aspects of railway engineering.
“Line 1 of the MRT used some expats. But we put in place an ‘understudy’ team, where our own people would have to learn as much as they could from the expatriates.
“Come Line 2, locals have a greater role. We just have to ensure continuous learning and upgrading of skills as well as the transfer of knowledge,” says Ubull, adding that Gamuda’s determination can be seen in the numbers.
“At Kaohsiung, we had 14 engineers, and for EDTP, we had more than 100 engineers. Now, we have almost 300 engineers, and this is just on systems alone,” he says.
The “Malaysianisation” of railway engineering is also seen elsewhere, such as in the project owner of the MRT, Mass Rapid Transit Corporation Sdn Bhd (MRT Corp). Line 1 had a foreigner as its project director, but the project director for Line 2 is a Malaysian, Datuk Amiruddin Ma’aris.
“Every year, we take in at least 80 engineers for training,” says Ubull, adding that expatriates will still be needed for very specialised tasks, such as troubleshooting problems that crop up during tunnelling deep underground or across very difficult terrain.
For Mahadi, the last frontier to be mastered by Malaysians has to do with railway signalling, as this tends to be based on European software.
“Signalling is the hardest to learn. Signalling software from Spain, France, Germany, or Italy, they are all proprietary, those are the harder ones to learn, and it takes longer for locals to master them.
“As for trackwork, power supply, and distribution, as well as the trains themselves, these are the major physical works that can be localised, as the relevant skills to manage them can be learned by locals, who are also becoming increasingly familiar with the automated fare collection system, from both the hardware and software aspects.
“We can say that localisation is on the rise from project to project, say from around 40% to 50% to the region of 60% to 70%. On things like basic design and design management, we are going full steam ahead,” says Mahadi, adding that the quality assurance of a railway system, especially anything pertaining to reliability, is also another mountain to be scaled.
“Apart from software, the tailend of the system assurance, where safety and security are related, is another area that locals are catching up on. This is about independent safety assessments, which is a technical skill that is at the next level. Right now, we still depend on a third party to audit and verify that everything is OK, and that is one area of learning and growth.”
Putting the nitty gritty technical aspects aside, Szeto says Gamuda is well placed to be a transport master planner for any city.
“For Kuching, we can provide the full range of service from LRT alignment planning to ridership projection, all the way to the calculation of the project’s economic internal rate of return as well as the cost-benefit ratio.
“By calculating all these, we can determine which system to use. As Kuching is very big, we can design and build in phases,” he points out.
Gamuda’s partnership in Sarawak with Naim Holdings Bhd – Naim-Gamuda JV Sdn Bhd – has been awarded the contract to build a component of the state’s Pan Borneo Highway.
Touted as the main transportation backbone for Sabah and Sarawak, the Pan Borneo Highway is expected to play a major role in creating economic corridors and opportunities there. Naturally, the Naim-Gamuda joint-venture is also looking into introducing an LRT network in Kuching.
Ubull remains confident that Gamuda’s calculated, phased approach will not only yield dividends but will also push Malaysia ever closer towards self-sufficiency in railways.
“We are taking things one step at a time. The spectrum of work in railways is very wide, with many opportunities. For example, we are even looking at train maintenance work.”
Why building a railway line is so difficult
It’s not about throwing down some lines and hooking up railcars. There are multiple and delicate systems that all need to mesh.
While the trainset and tracks are readily visible to casual observers, constructing a modern railway system is actually a very complicated task. Railways, be it anything from a monorail to high-speed rail, comprise many interactive systems, meaning there’s plenty of scope for things to go wrong.
For example, the rails, other than supporting train wheels, can also carry electrical currents which could be part of the signalling system. Other parts of the rail (such as systems that incorporate a third rail) could be part of the traction power system, and this could generate electromagnetic waves that could interfere with other parts of the signalling or communications system.
Other than the traction power system, there is a wide array of equipment to ensure the operability of any railway, and these include radio and telephonic voice communications; control, command and monitoring functions; and routing of power, gas and water supplies, along with a host of cables. All these vie for the tight and limited space in stations, on platforms, in depots, on bridges and embankments, and in tunnels. There are also other constraints that have to be taken into account, such as the bandwidth used for communications and data channels, with data for customer information, CCTV transmissions, and fire detection and intruder alarm systems all jostling for the capacity offered by telecommunications networks.
Lastly, the many types of rolling stock have to be compatible with the infrastructure. Ordering trainsets is not a matter of going through the catalogue and picking something, as each train – on, for example, the MRT – has to be custom-built for each line. In view of the many demands imposed by the need for safety, reliability, security and efficiency, each system has to be designed with not just its own functionality in mind but also those of the other systems, and how all these interact with each other. The task of ensuring that all these seemingly disparate systems work in harmony with each other in all possible scenarios, including accidents, emergencies, and extreme demands, is called systems integration (SI).
SI expertise is one of the most sought after engineering skills in the rail industry anywhere in the world, including in Malaysia where we are still playing catch up.