BY LEONG SHEN-LI
FOR many decades, public transport as a sector, especially in urban areas, has often escaped the attention of the national planners.
When towns grew to a stage where the old modes of transport like bicycles and trishaws became impractical, it was left to the private sector and the forces of supply and demand to satisfy the needs of urban commuters.
This was how the traditional bus companies such as Selangor Omnibus, Toong Fong, Foh Hup and Penang Yellow Bus, began appearing in the streets of cities just before World War Two.
Moving themasses: Themonorail wasintroduced in2003 to helpsatisfy the needsof urbancommuters formore modern andefficient mode oftransportation.
Some municipal governments also operated bus services and, in Penang’s case, an electric tram and later a trolley bus service, but their role was mostly supplementary to the main services provided by the private companies.
Such buses fulfilled the needs of commuters until the 1970s when the demand for public transport went up phenomenally, especially in urban areas where the population and economic activities grew.
In Kuala Lumpur, the Government decided to introduce the infamous mini-buses to solve the problem.
Later when bus transport could not solely handle needs of commuters, rail transport had to be developed. In 1995, the KTM Komuter – a commuter train service linking Kuala Lumpur with Seremban, Rawang and Port Klang began operating.
The old movers: The Seremban bus station (left) back in the 70s; the electric tram (centre) and trolley bus service which were synonymous with Penang.
In 1996, the country’s first light rail transit (LRT) system, Star-LRT (now known as the Ampang Line) started running along elevated tracks above Kuala Lumpur’s busy streets. Putra-LRT (now known as the Kelana Jaya Line) followed in 1998 and the monorail in 2003.
Despite these modern systems, public transport usage in Kuala Lumpur continued to drop. A study found than only 16% of all trips in Kuala Lumpur were done on public transport, one of the lowest among cities in the region.
This was due to various reasons, including the increase in car ownership and preference for road development, lack of connectivity between the various rail-based services, and the poor bus service, which was still supposed to play a crucial role in an integrated public transport system.
The Government tried to improve the bus service. It tried letting more than one operator on a route (all routes were previously exclusive to one company) and later, getting the various companies to merge into two consortiums, namely Intrakota and Cityliner.
These moves, however, did not bring about the desired results.
The LRT companies also had problems repaying their commercial loans when they found that their initial revenue projections were not being met.
Just a few years after they starting operations, the two LRT companies were in danger of collapse.
Acompletesolution:RapidKLhashelped tosolve KL’spublictransportwoes.
The Government had no choice but to step in. In 1998, it set up Syarikat Prasarana Negara Berhad (SPNB). It took over the debts of the LRT companies and, later, the assets and operations of the two systems.
It also took over the operations of the two bus consortiums, which accounted for about 70% of Kuala Lumpur’s bus network.
In 2004, it set up another government-owned company, Rangkaian Pengangkutan Integrasi Deras Sdn Bhd (RapidKL).
The company handled the operational aspects of the LRT and buses while SPNB remained the owner of the assets.
No longer saddled with the need to repay loans, SPNB boosted the bus fleet and RapidKL ensured that they were operated efficiently.
Soon, new comfortable buses started becoming more visible on the streets. The number of bus commuters began to go up.
Kuala Lumpur was not the only city which was facing problems with its public transport.
The bus service in Penang was also extremely poor and the old bus companies were facing financial problems.
A major Penang icon, the Penang Yellow Bus Company, stopped operating on Jan 1, 2004.
The Government stepped in and started Rapid Penang along the same lines as RapidKL.
Rapid Penang was launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on July 31 this year.