IF the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) has to describe this year in just a few words, then 2017 is surely the year of rail.
In December 2016, the Government launched the first phase of the Sungai Buloh-Kajang (SBK) MRT line. And in July, its second phase or full opening of the 51km line began.
Even as commuters are singing praises of it, work is already underway for its Line 2 or the Sungai Buloh-Serdang-Putrajaya (SSP) Line, a 52km route with 37 stops.
Work has also started on LRT3 connecting Bandar Utama with Johan Setia, Selangor, fresh on the heels of the completion of the LRT Extension Programme in June last year.
Last month also saw the ground breaking ceremony for the 600km East Coast Rail Line, a fast train service (up to 160kph) designed to transform the landscape of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan by shortening the journey time from the west coast states, other than adding 22 stations to the corridor.
And at the end of the year, Malaysia and Singapore should call a joint-tender to set up a privately-financed asset company for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail project, which marks another milestone to connecting these two cities by rail by 2026.
Malaysia and Singapore are also expected to sign an agreement in December for the Johor Baru-Woodlands Rapid Transit System project.
Chugging since Merdeka
Malaya – which achieved independence in 1957 – before becoming Malaysia in 1963, had its first railway in 1885, a 13-km single metre-gauge track linking Taiping with Port Weld, both in Perak.
By 1957, the Federation was connected with Singapore, as well as with Thailand at Padang Besar in Perlis and Rantau Panjang in Kelantan via the east coast line that branched off from Gemas.
In total, the Federation had close to 1,700km of metre-gauge railway, which is now run by KTM Bhd.
The construction of rail to connect various states only took off after the formation of the Federated Malay States in 1896.
Lines running in Federated Malay States (Perak, Selangor, Pahang, Negri Sembilan) came under the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR), which was founded in 1901 to consolidate the rail network in Malaya.
Until the formation of the FMSR, Malaya’s railway systems were disparate entities as each was built to serve commercial interests largely concentrated along the west coast of the peninsula.
By the end of the 19th century, Malaya had at least six separate railway companies.
For example, the Perak Government Railway was built to serve tin mining through two lines: the Taiping line between Parit Buntar and Kuala Sepetang, while the other ran between Enggor and Teluk Intan.
The Selangor Government Railway was built to transport goods between Klang and Kuala Lumpur. An extension of the line to Port Klang was done in 1899.
By 1900, there was a line through Kuala Lumpur that stopped at Jalan Sultan, Pudu and Ampang.
Then a Straits Settlement, Singapore started building its first rail infrastructure in 1903 to facilitate the movement of goods to its Keppel Harbour, and was connected to Malaya after the Causeway was completed in 1923.
In 1931, the east coast line between Tumpat and Gemas (Negri Sembilan) was bridged when the final stretch between Gua Musang and Kuala Gris in Kelantan was opened.
No significant development in rail took place for nearly 60 years since then.
For example, while the first railway station in Kuala Lumpur was built in 1892, electrification of rail became a reality only when KTM rolled out its Komuter service in August 1995.
The last major improvement to the metre-gauge rail was in 2014, when the over-700km portion from Gemas to Padang Besar was completed, thus allowing for the smooth running of ETS train sets alongside cargo trains beginning 2015.
Urban rail frenzy
When it came to urban rail or metros, the mid-1990s was characterised by a frenzy in construction, which saw Malaysia’s first LRT and monorail network being built.
The first was the Ampang LRT line, which opened in December 1996. This was followed by the Sri Petaling LRT line in July 1998, built to serve the National Sports Complex at Bukit Jalil.
The Kelana Jaya LRT line opened for service in September 1998, in time for the Commonwealth Games. It was during this project that Malaysia saw its first metro tunnelling when the Government ordered a 4km section of the line to go underground.
And in 2003, the Kuala Lumpur monorail opened for service.
Urban rail development came to a standstill for more than 10 years as it was not until July 2011 that Klang Valley saw work on its maiden MRT in the form of the SBK Line, following government approval in December 2010.
The SBK and Sungai Buloh-Serdang-Putrajaya lines, together with MRT3, are the core components of the KVMRT Project, which, when combined with existing lines, forms the backbone of Greater Kuala Lumpur’s public transport network.
The way forward
While the benefits of physical integration are obvious, it took 12 years for the Masjid Jamek interchange in Kuala Lumpur to become an interchange in the true sense – as defined by having a single ticketing system and fully covered walkway.
Full integration between the two lines at Masjid Jamek was achieved only five years after the Ampang line opened, and two years after phase 2 of the Kelana Jaya line (from Pasar Seni to Gombak) opened.
All these shortcomings have been officially acknowledged, especially by SPAD.
“Our previous problem with integration was because in the past, each system was developed in silos, resulting in poor connectivity,” said SPAD chief executive officer Mohd Azharuddin Mat Sah.
These shortcomings are being addressed under the National Land Public Transport Master Plan that aims to ensure that at least 40% of all journeys within Malaysia is made using public transport by 2030, even in the face of challenges such as having to cater to many low-density developments, relatively affordable private vehicles, and the lack of a reserved corridor for rail.
This will be achieved through introducing ticketing integration (a common payment system across all networks), boosting walkability, reforming the bus business model, while ensuring sustainable fare revisions.
Equally important is pulling all the relevant agencies and stakeholders together so that a whole-of-Government approach can be seen in driving public transport.
“We are glad that many things are on the right track. We will keep on plugging all the gaps and weaknesses to ensure that rail will be and remain an attractive mode of transport,” said Azharuddin.