KUALA LUMPUR: The Covid-19 pandemic has hit public transport operators hard with ridership plunging by almost 40% since the imposition of the movement control order (MCO) in March.
Prasarana Malaysia Bhd, the largest operator of urban public transport, with a presence in Penang, Taiping, Kamunting, Kuantan, and Klang Valley (under the Rapid KL brand), revealed that April proved to be the worst month with only 30,000 to 40,000 passengers using public transportation daily, compared to the pre-MCO daily average of 700,000 to 800,000 passengers.
“There was a severe drop in the first half of 2020, and we are trying very hard to regain ridership,” said Muhammad Nizam Alias, president and group chief executive officer of Prasarana during a media briefing.
Nizam helms an organisation that is very dependent on revenue from ticket sales, or what is known in the industry as the farebox revenue model.
The MCO has been a huge blow to Prasarana because 2019 was a sterling year for the company, with overall ridership up to three million, and a clear shift in mode of transport, from bus to rail.
“I am happy to report that we surpassed that revenue target in 2019, which increased by 20% year-on-year,” Nizam said, adding that the increase was attributed mainly to the warm reception to the My100 monthly pass, which entitles the commuter (Malaysians only) to have unlimited use of all Rapid KL buses and trains.
Since then, Prasarana has been scrambling to recover ground, and a shot in the arm came on June 15, when the government provided funds to Prasarana to launch its My30 unlimited travel pass, which gives the same privileges as My100, at less than a-third of the price.
But cheap fares is one thing, as commuters still need assurance that the public vehicles are germ-free to continue using them.
“Our focus is now on how to regain confidence, and we will work with the government to ensure the people’s welfare is safeguarded. In this regard, we will use the best standard operating procedures (SOP) to fight Covid-19.”
The need to assure commuters that its trains and buses are thoroughly and regularly sanitised, if not disinfected, is evident, as some commuters are still hesitant to use public transport, with some thinking of ways and means to buy their own cars to avoid having to share space with others.
According to Prasarana, all the trains and buses it operates are disinfected with quaternary ammonium compounds, an approved disinfectant effective on fungi, bacteria, and most importantly viruses.
For instance, the LRT coaches used for the Kelana Jaya line are thoroughly sprayed at its Lembah Subang depot every night before they are deployed the next day, other than being wiped down with the same disinfectant during the day. Its buses are also sprayed at its bus hubs daily.
Likewise, Express Rail Link Sdn Bhd, operator of the ERL airport express to KLIA, said it had tripled the frequency of cleaning of high contact areas at stations throughout the day.
“All high contact areas on the trains are being disinfected and train seat steam cleaning is being conducted during nightly deep cleaning. Stronger disinfectants are being used, while hand sanitiser is provided at our ticket counters,” it said in a reply to The Star.
Regular MRT user Kelvin Khew is of the opinion that the trains are reasonably well cleaned, though he wishes more can be done to enforce physical distancing measures.
Khew, who travels daily from Kajang to KL Sentral for work, said operators need to have more personnel on the platforms, or even within the trains, to regulate the crowd during peak hours, especially the evening peak hours.
“The station itself may not be crowded, but the interior of the train is,” said the communications executive.
“I feel at least two officers should be stationed inside the train during peak hours,” he added.
Khew said further enhancements for increased hygiene and efficiency would be to go completely ticketless or token-less by using smartphones as the “ticket” instead.
Currently, Prasarana uses tokens for those who do not have a Touch’n’Go card or myKad, which many users still tap at the fare gates at the stations, or the card reader on buses.
“RapidKL can consider using QR codes on cellphones to substitute tickets, just like how MRT Jakarta is doing,” he said.
Even with these measures, Covid-19 may prove to be a formidable obstacle to operators regaining a good chunk of lost ridership as many companies are now offering remote working as an option.
For example, Petronas, which fully occupies Tower One of the KLCC together with its subsidiaries and associate companies, is asking its staff in certain roles to work from home until the end of the year.
Remote working arrangements of Petronas and dozens of other companies in the area has led to the number of riders at the KLCC LRT station to decline to 1,300 per day in April, from a high of 26,000 in February, before recovering to 12,000 in July.
“We want to make sure people feel safe when they travel by ensuring cleanliness is maintained, and at an affordable fare,” said Nizam, who acknowledged that many people are still worried about catching an infection while using public transport.
Other than Covid-19, operators like Prasarana also have to contend with competitors such as e-hailing and car sharing operators, making this year an extremely challenging one. It recognises that it has to do a lot to win back bus riders, who have largely switched to trains since the introduction of unlimited travel passes as it made urban rail travel much more affordable.
For example, on June 19, Prasarana unveiled a real-time bus tracking app in collaboration with Google Maps, enabling users to track the location of Rapid KL buses plying nearly 170 bus routes in Klang Valley including MRT/LRT feeders, as well as GoKL and Smart Selangor buses. This cooperation with third parties to help bus users follow an earlier collaboration with Moovit, another mobility app.
“We’ll also work at improving the first and last mile connections. We realise it has been a pain point among consumers,” said Nizam, who recently unveiled pink-coloured LRT feeder buses for selected LRT stations as part of a pilot project to increase their visibility, following the success of the MRT feeder buses.
If anything, the huge uptake for the My30 pass shows that many are willing to return to public transport when normalcy returns gradually.
“As of Aug 20, we have sold more than 300,000 My30 passes, even though overall ridership dropped by more than 40%. Our monthly sales still shows encouraging results,” he said.