System needs major overhaul

FIRST and foremost, let me confess that I have a soft spot for the Klang Valley’s KTM Komuter system. Sure, it is not exactly the most efficient, convenient or modern system the denizens of the city have to put up with.

But KTM Komuter was the first of Kuala Lumpur’s mass transit systems – starting way back in 1995 – and it was the one that broke the psychological barrier that Malaysia would never be able to have a public transport system which was clean, reliable and punctual and which could attract the white collar crowd away from their cars.

Furthermore, it was and still is one of the cheapest ways of getting around in the Klang Valley.

Lately however, the system has come under considerable criticism and the words reliable, punctual and efficient are hardly heard when we talk of the KTM Komuter. Instead, we hear of trains coming late, sometimes even not at all, and passengers not being able to rely on its trains to get to work on time.

Flashback: The StarMetro report yesterday.

With lower frequencies, trains become packed. I remember taking a train, which came after an earlier one which was cancelled, from the old Kuala Lumpur station to the new Kepong Sentral station and for the whole way, I did not need to worry about not having something to hold on to because I was pinned by bodies all around, so much so it would have been impossible for me to fall down even if the train driver had to hit the emergency brakes. I cannot imagine how women can put up with such close bodily contact with total strangers.

Why has the service, from one which used to get praises for running on “German punctuality” deteriorated to this level? Well, reports have said that from an original fleet of 62 electric trains, the 200km KTM Komuter system now only relies on 28 trains “on a good day”.

“Train breakdowns of course still occur and when that happens, good luck,” one KTMB staff said.

Twenty eight trains are hardly enough for the system to survive on a 20-minute frequency service and at least 36 trains are needed for the original comfortable 15-minute frequency service.

One should not be surprised that this is happening. The warning of impending disaster had been sounded out in the past few years. They have even come from no other than Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd managing director Datuk Mohd Salleh Abdullah.

In a particularly frank press conference he gave in Gemas last year, Mohd Salleh pointed out a few disturbing facts. He said in the late 1990s when KTMB was under private management (an interim arrangement prior to full privatisation which was eventually abandoned), a lot of maintenance work was deferred.

“Trains which were supposed to have been overhauled after running one million kilometres are still on the tracks today. None of the KTM Komuter trains have been overhauled as required by the maintenance schedule” he said.

Just to get an idea when the million-kilometre mark was reached, each train clocks up on average about 400km a day. Most trains have been operating since 1995!

On top of that, Mohd Salleh said some of the train models have become obsolete and spare parts are now impossible to find. KTMB now has to resort to what in railwayman’s jargon is called “cannibalisation” – stripping one train of parts to keep the other trains running.

KTMB is a wholly Government-owned corporation and for huge works like major overhauls, it has to rely on Government funding. With such funding, the Government is also the party to award the contract to carry out the overhauling job.

It was reported that the Government approved the allocation for the overhaul of 50 KTM Komuter trains at the end of 2006. However, the RM170mil contract took about year to be awarded and work began at the end of last year.

And recently, Transport Minister Datuk Ong Tee Keat announced that there would be further delays in the overhaul job. They were supposed to get 15 trains ready by July but now, only three would be ready by that time.

It would seem that the woes of commuters are not about to end soon.

A reporter who covered the May 8 press conference by Ong at the Sentul KTMB depot – it was called after a spate of bad press about the KTM Komuter – noticed how harried Mohd Salleh was, especially after the minister talked about the delays in overhaul works.

“It is all bad news and there is nothing much that can be done,” the reporter said, showing a moment of empathy.

Train delays aside, there are many other things about the KTM Komuter that have irked the stressed commuter. Ticket machines which do not work, electrical train information boards which are not real-time, the lack of escalators at most stations and even, for a long time, the lack of adequate roofing at most stations.

The lack of facilities of course is basically due to it being the earliest of public transit systems in Malaysia.

In the early 1990s when the system was being built, the Government took the view that “frills” like escalators, toilets, roofing and proper information boards could be done away with, or, as the official parlance goes, “deferred to a later date when more allocation is available.”

Of course, the allocations never came and the “they can continue to go without” philosophy set in.

However, KTMB have been asking for and obtained allocations for a number of improvements in the past few years.

In 2005, KTMB started putting up canopy roofing at 29 stations which previously had hardly any shelter.

On Aug 23, 2004, KTM Komuter’s first “modern” station – Midvalley – which had lifts and escalators was opened. It remains the third busiest station in the network.

The Midvalley station design, complete with the “frills”, will now be the standard design for all future KTM Komuter stations.

Last year, the Bank Negara halt was upgraded. After a six-month delay resulting from, it was said, an objection over the roof design as the project was halfway through, the new station became operational last month.

Little as they may seem, such efforts should still be commended and it is clear that all parties are trying hard to improve the system. However, more effort, especially those controlling the purse strings, is needed to help make the system world class and help ease the Klang Valley of its traffic congestion problem.

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