Public transport initiatives


The entry point to Kelantan is the Gua Musang station (foreground), a station surrounded by great natural beauty such as this limestone outcrop.

TRAFFIC between Kelantan’s capital of Kota Baru and Kuala Lumpur is heavy, as reflected in the frequency of daily flights out of the Sultan Ismail Petra airport to either KLIA or Subang Airport. Currently, more than 200 flights a week depart from Kota Baru, attesting to the number of people who need to reach their destinations in a hurry.

Heavy traffic is also reflected in the daily bus services, with 125 buses a day plying the same route that takes around eight hours (can be up to half a day long in the run-up to the holidays, especially Hari Raya), depending on traffic conditions.

The third mode of transportation in and out of Kelantan would be the railways. Discussions on the more romantic aspects of Kelantan are inseparable from its East Coast Line, a single-track railway built by the British from 1910 to the 1930s. The 527km-line links Gemas in Negri Sembilan all the way to Tumpat, near the Thailand border. Along the way, it passes through mountainous areas, many rivers, and nearly a dozen tunnels. It was originally operated by the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR), before it was taken over by Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTMB) after Malayan independence.

Nearly a century after operating, rail continues to play a critical role in this region as an alternative mode of public transportation for those living in the interior areas of Kelantan. This is despite extensive road building by both the state and federal government over the years.

Right now, this stretch of rail, also fondly known as Jungle Rail among enthusiasts, serves an important social route (for places roads are yet to be built), other than serving as an economical mode of travel for those who are not in a great hurry.

 

Nature proved to be the rail line’s most enduring enemy, though it did suffer major damage during the Second World War, when the Japanese removed around 240km of track to build the infamous Death Railway along the Thailand-Myanmar border. These stretches were restored after the war.

In December 1931, the Peel Bridge at Kemubu, located 379km from Gemas, collapsed because of the abnormal rise of Sungai Galas, a major tributary of Sungai Kelantan.

Built in 1932 by the Federated Malay States Railway, Peel Bridge is 193.7m in length, spread across five spans, four of them 36.5m length, and one (Span No.5) measuring 47.7m. This steel girder bridge has an overall weight of 155 tonnes, and is also used by pedestrians and motorcyclists.

Named after Sir William Peel (1875 to 1945), a British colonial administrator in Malaya who became the Governor of Hong Kong in 1930, the Peel Bridge is a crucial link in the last segment of the East Coast Line to be completed, which is the stretch between Gua Musang (320km from Gemas) and Kuala Geris, Kelantan.

Back then, a direct service from Tumpat to Singapore was available, with the train leaving Tumpat every Thursday morning, and reaching Singapore the next morning after 20.5 hours. The service in the reverse direction leaves Singapore Sunday evening, and arrives at Tumpat on Monday afternoon. There are also other mixed trains (passengers and goods) running shorter distances.

The Peel Bridge suffered its next major damage 83 years later.

On Dec 20, 2014, a span of this bridge was again washed away during major flooding in the East Coast, an event that also caused severe damage to tracks, signalling system, stations and rolling stock along the route, with affected areas including Merapoh, Gua Musang, Limau Kasturi, Bertam Baharu, Kemubu, Dabong, Bukit Abu, Manek Urai and Kuala Krai.

On Dec 29 that year, the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) instructed KTMB to cease operations between Gemas–Tumpat for safety reasons.

However, this subjected communities living along the inactive route to various difficulties.

Recognising the severity of this incident, SPAD conducted a quick assessment to gauge the impact of the people and the land public transportation ecosystem in Kelantan and other flood-stricken states. Following this, the Federal Government quickly approved an allocation amounting to RM760mil for the East Coast Line Track Rehabilitation Project supervised by SPAD.

This enabled track repair work to be quickly carried out in sections by KTMB and relevant agencies, with work including track repairs, changing sleepers, ballasting, lining and tamping. Repair work for the Peel Bridge alone took 15 months, as it included structure repair, strengthening works and protection work, among others. At the same time, work is also being done to reinforce the bridge so that it can take heavier loads in future, from the current 16 tonnes per axle to 20 tonnes, in line with Malaysia’s aspiration for its intercity train network. In all, the repair and enhancement of the Peel Bridge over two phases cost RM17.6mil.

Passengers coming out of the KTM Intercity train service at the Gua Musang station in Kelantan in March last year.
Passengers coming out of the KTM Intercity train service at the Gua Musang station in Kelantan in March last year.

SPAD undertook various efforts to provide assistance to affected public transport operators other than KTMB, including vehicle replacement programmes and sponsorship for badly affected operators so that they can quickly resume operations and transport services for the community.

This was carried out in cooperation with taxi operators in Kuala Lumpur, who came forward to donate taxis which were more than 10 years old, to hired car operators in the flood-stricken states. To this end, 12 units of taxis were contributed by Gabungan Persatuan dan Syarikat Teksi Semenanjung Malaysia to their counterparts in Kelantan.

SPAD facilitated the transfer of the status of the taxi permits from a “budget taxi” to a “hired car” licence. SPAD also donated refurbished taxis that were given by Klang Valley-based taxi operators, including Sunlight and Avenue, to individual taxi owners who suffered total losses during the floods in Kota Baru.

SPAD also negotiated with a bus company to provide shuttle services between Dabong to Jeli and between Dabong and Kuala Krai as an interim measure to help people commute following the floods. In addition, the outreach exercise also saw SPAD providing one computer and RM1,000 in cash to 11 taxi associations in Kota Baru to help them with their daily business operations.

Following months of non-stop work, SPAD approved the re-opening of the East Coast Line from Gemas-Tumpat in three phases: Gemas-Gua Musang, as well as Kemubu-Kuala Krai July 10, 2015. The Kuala Krai-Tumpat stretch was reopened on Aug 24, while the Gua Musang-Kemubu (including Peel Bridge) stretch was given the green light on May 16 last year.

With the resumption of services between Gemas and Tumpat, students and traders have resumed daily commutes as they used to prior to the shutdown of the line. With 12 services provided (10 shuttle and two express), the line transports an average of 1,000 passengers daily.

Medium-term rehabilitation for long-term comfort

As the East Coast Line has always been in a rather poor shape even before the 2014 floods, the government also decided to invest in long-term track rehabilitation to further improve safety, ride comfort and efficiency of the line.

The work was awarded in three packages since the third quarter of 2016. Package A covers the Gemas-Mentakab section (126km over 36 months), Package B, the Jerantut-Gua Musang (138.5km over 36 months), and Package C, covering the Gua Musang-Tumpat stretch (138.5km over 30 months).

Contractors are currently undertaking soil investigation work and finalising the design, implementation and quality assurance plans, as well as method statements. It will take nearly three years before train services to the east coast can be “normalised”, both in terms of frequency as well as speed, due to ongoing work to rehabilitate the entire line, especially the stretch from Gemas to Gua Musang.

KTMB is currently offering only limited express train services, a situation expected to persist for the next three years until the line is fully rehabilitated.

One such intercity service is the Ekspres Rakyat Timuran, which plies the Tumpat-to-JB Sentral route and vice versa. Due to the unsatisfactory condition of the track at many spots, trains have to slow down to 25kph at these places to ensure safety, resulting in a one-way journey from JB Sentral to Tumpat taking up to 18 hours, with the leg from Gemas to Kota Baru (Wakaf Baru station) alone taking 13 hours.

Things will look up by 2019, when 13 new diesel electric multiple unit (DMU) trains will also be procured to serve local commuters from Gemas to Tumpat. By running these new trains on a fully rehabilitated track, commuters can expect improved comfort, reliability and service frequency.

SMK Dabong students waiting for their train to depart from the Dabong train station in March last year. KTMB has been running a shuttle service on the East Coast Line from Tumpat to Dabong since late 2015, several months after the line was cut into two by floods that swamped the state in 2014.

The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) Project

Spanning a distance of nearly 600km, the first phase of the main ECRL line (531.8km) is expected to run from Gombak, Selangor to Tumpat, with major stops at Pahang’s Bentong, Mentakab, Jengka, Kuantan, as well as Kuala Terengganu. The main line will also be supported by spur lines intended for cargo services, with a 64km stretch covering Bukit Besi, Kemaman Port, and Kuantan Port, an area adjacent to the proposed 70sq km Kuala Terengganu growth triangle.

ECRL also intersects the current KTMB metre-gauge line at Mentakab and Kota Baru (at Wakaf Baru), allowing commuters to change trains for better connectivity. The ECRL project will radically transform life along the East Coast corridor by delivering multipliers in the form of better jobs and economic opportunities to people living in villages and towns in the region.

Small towns and villages along the ECRL route will become engines of growth and opportunity, allowing the youth, who have long been leaving their homes for jobs in the city, to remain to enrich the lives of their family, friends and communities.

The linkage of industrial hubs in the East Coast region to key ports in Peninsular Malaysia such as Port Klang, Kemaman and Kuantan will provide a distinct logistic and transportation advantage.

Government studies show that this ECRL project will contribute as much as an additional 1.5% GDP annual growth on average to the East Coast Region over the next 50 years where the main beneficiaries would be the rural and semi-rural rakyat and the businesses within the region of the East coast states.

ECRL will have significant benefits for Kelantan, as it will greatly speed up travel time between Kota Baru and Kuala Lumpur, with a very competitive time compared to flying as it is expected to be not more than four hours.

One such intercity is the Ekspres Rakyat Timuran, which plies the Tumpat to JB Sentral route and vice versa. Due to the unsatisfactory condition of the track at many spots, trains have to slow down to 25kph at these places to ensure safety, resulting in a one-way journey from JB Sentral to Tumpat taking up to 18 hours, with the leg from Gemas to Kota Baru (Wakaf Baru station) alone taking 13 hours.

Things will look up by 2019, when 13 new diesel electric multiple unit (DMU) trains will also be procured to serve local commuters from Gemas to Tumpat. By running these new trains on a fully rehabilitated track, commuters can expect improved comfort, reliability and service frequency.

The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) Project

Spanning a distance of nearly 600km, the first phase of the main ECRL line (531.8km) is expected to run from Gombak, Selangor to Tumpat, with major stops at Pahang’s Bentong, Mentakab, Jengka, Kuantan, as well as Kuala Terengganu. The main line will also be supported by spur lines intended for cargo services, with a 64km stretch covering Bukit Besi, Kemaman Port, and Kuantan Port, an area adjacent to the proposed 70sq km Kuala Terengganu growth triangle.

ECRL also intersects the current KTMB metre-gauge line at Mentakab and Kota Baru (at Wakaf Bharu), allowing commuters to change trains for better connectivity. The ECRL project will radically transform life along the East Coast corridor by delivering multipliers in the form of better jobs and economic opportunities to people living in villages and towns in the region.

Small towns and villages along the ECRL route will become engines of growth and opportunity, allowing the youth, who have long been leaving their homes for jobs in the city, to remain to enrich the lives of their family, friends and communities.

The linkage of industrial hubs in the East Coast region to key ports in Peninsular Malaysia such as Port Klang, Kemaman and Kuantan will provide a distinct logistic and transportation advantage.

Government studies show that this ECRL project will contribute as much as an additional 1.5% GDP annual growth on average to the East Coast Region over the next 50 years where the main beneficiaries would be the rural and semi-rural rakyat and the businesses within the region of the East coast states.

ECRL will have significant benefits for Kelantan, as it will greatly speed up travel time between Kota Baru and Kuala Lumpur, with a very competitive time compared to flying as it is expected to be not more than four hours.

Even when KTMB’s east coast line was at its “peak” condition, the same journey would take around half a day, which is far too long for those with little time to waste.

Under Phase 1 of ECRL, Kelantan will get three stations – Tok Bali, Jelawat (near Bachok), and Kota Baru, over a track length of 45.5km.

Under Phase 2, with full details to be announced soon, Kelantan should get another two stations at Wakaf Baru and Pengkalan Kubor when the track is extended closer to the Thai border.

The proposed rail service would attract more investments into the state as connectivity between Kota Baru and Kuala Lumpur will be greatly improved. With increasing development made possible in Kelantan, ECRL could help discourage outmigration from Kelantan to the Klang Valley by opening up job opportunities in either Terengganu or Pahang. Tourism is also expected to receive a boost by improving accessibility, given that the present KTMB service takes way too long for people in a hurry.

The possible connection of ECRL to Thailand can also spur investment in Kelantan, especially in the manufacturing sector. For example, the spatial distribution of planned industrial areas in Kelantan shows a concentration in the Kota Baru district, where the largest industrial estate in the state, Pengkalan Chepa, is located.

Pengkalan Chepa has a total area of 229ha (567 acres), and is meant for small-scale, light industries. Two other industrial areas are at Tanah Merah and at Tok Bali, near the border with Terengganu (next to Besut). The one at Tok Bali is a small park, designated for marine-based industries.

ECRL will give airlines and road transport (private cars or express buses) a real run for the money by offering yet another competitive option in terms of cost, journey time, and service frequency.

Completing the picture for public transport are improvements to the stage coach service in Kelantan. In this regard, the Stage Bus Services Transformation will eventually be rolled out in Kelantan after 2019, with the introduction of the myBAS service there.

In the meantime, SPAD is dishing out the Interim Stage Bus Support Fund (ISBSF) to prop up important bus operators there, such as theSyarikat Kenderaan Melayu Kelantan (SKMK).

From 2012 to 2016, SKMK received nearly RM98mil in ISBSF support from the Government. SKMK, which serves 35 routes totalling 1,842km, has recorded a decline in ridership. In 2012, its ridership was at 3,382,445, but the number dropped to 2,794,846 last year. Averaged out, its ridership for the past five years stood at 3,444,900 a year.

With all these initiatives in place, Kelantan’s infrastructure development can only get better over the medium to long term.

 
 

 

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