Although it has been about a year since the Klang Valley integrated rail transit system was completed, commuters are not taking to it in the way its planners had envisaged. In the first of a two part series, LEONG SHEN-LI and LAM LI examine why the system doesn’t click.
ONE thing university student Krishna Kumari Rao remembers most from her first taste of the working world is the torturous journey to work and back.
To say that the daily journey by public transport from Rawang to her office in Damansara when she underwent her industrial attachment stint was difficult is an understatement.
“I had to wake up at 5.30am and be on the bus by 7am. If not, I would be late for work,” she said. Once on the bus, the journey was more or less smooth. The problem came when she got to Kotaraya and had to wait for another bus to take her to Damansara.
“I may have to spend half-an-hour to one hour waiting for that bus,” she related.
She had the option of catching a commuter train from Rawang to KL Sentral, and then change to a light rail transit (LRT) to Asia Jaya. From there, a feeder bus would bring her to her office.
“The train and LRT were fast, but the feeder bus was terrible. Waiting for it cancelled out all the time saved on the train,” she said.
There was another problem with the train. It cost her RM5.10 each way, while by bus she only had to pay RM3.40.
The journey home was no better. Dark bus stops, empty buses and deserted stations added fear to the frustration of putting up with less frequent services. “It gets really frightening after dark,” said Krishna Kumari.
What Krishna Kumari went through for three months is experienced by hundreds of thousands of commuters daily. This is despite the completion of the first phase of Klang Valley's 274.6km integrated rail network last year.
The 500,000-odd commuters who use the network is small when compared to the three million journeys daily for work every morning, and miniscule when compared with the 1.4 million passengers per day capacity the system was designed for.
Transport Minister Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy said that as far as big cities go, Kuala Lumpur had the worst public to private transport ratio in the region. Only 16% of people here use public transport, which is much lower when compared to Seoul where 60% were on public transport, or Singapore where it was 56%, or Bangkok’s 30%.
While the system helps to relieve Klang Valley's congestion by taking between 300,000 and 400,000 cars off the roads daily, experts say more people need to use public transport for Kuala Lumpur to continue functioning properly.
“Kuala Lumpur's roads are saturated. If the problem is not solved, the city will grind to a halt,” said one private consultant.
There are many reasons why people are staying away from public transport.
What is deemed to be the “complete” rail network is far from that where commuters are concerned. By itself, there is no way the rail network – made up of the KTM Komuter, two LRT systems, monorail and the two fast trains to KL International Airport – can provide door-to-door travel. The final ride home is still highly reliant on feeder buses, which, unfortunately, are either not reliable or totally non-existent.
“One can be hopelessly stranded at an LRT or train station with no means of going further,” Centre for the Environment, Technology and Development (Cetdem) executive director Gurmit Singh pointed out.
Thus, it is not surprising that commuters would not use the bus.
The solution is, of course, to ensure reliable and frequent feeder bus services. This can be done, experts said, by changing routes to make them shorter.
“Shorter routes are more reliable. Long routes tend to accumulate delays,” one consultant said.
Similar “final link” problems also exist at the city-centre side of the line.
All lines converge at the city centre and hopping from one line to another, commuters are supposed to reach their final destinations. The Kuala Lumpur monorail was specifically built for this purpose.
Unfortunately, changing from one line to another is extremely inconvenient at present. Take the Starline-Putraline “interchange” at Masjid Jamek as an example. Commuters have to scale stairs or escalators equivalent in height to five storeys, dash across busy Jalan Tun Perak and line up to buy different tickets before boarding the connecting train.
At the Titiwangsa stations (serving Starline and the monorail), although both are elevated and within view of each other, people have to descend to road level to go from one to the other.
The KL Sentral monorail station, on the other hand, requires commuters to walk some 250m across a car park to reach the actual KL Sentral station where there are other transit services.
“The absence of seamless connectivity is probably the weakest link in the public transport network,” another transport consultant, Lim Eng Hwa said.
Good connectivity, Lim said, should also exist with other modes, such as cars and buses and even for cyclists and pedestrains.
“For this, better physical integration means more car parks for park-and-ride facilities, bus stops as close as possible to platforms, and covered and safe walkways for pedestrians.”
Another missing prerequisite for good connectivity in the present system is common ticketing.
As most integrated urban transit systems are made up of trains, buses and LRTs, only with a ticket or electronic fare card that can be used for all modes would a commuter feel that the network functions as one system.
“Forcing people to buy tickets each time they move from one mode to another is ridiculous. It just adds more inconvenience to an already inconvenience-riddled ordeal,” the private consultant said.
Common ticketing may also help lower the cost of travel, which, with the advent of the rail-based system, had started escalating.
“If you price your fares to cater only for middle class office workers, then you can't call it public transport anymore. Public transport should cater to everyone, and especially those who have no other means of transport,” said the private consultant.
There are also a host of other issues that must be addressed to make public transport more attractive than the car.
“A simple thing like information is so terribly lacking. Take buses, for example. There are no timetables, route maps, or signboards with such information. You don’t know when a bus will come, and if one comes at all, which route it is taking,” Cetdem’s Gurmit said.
There is some hope, however, following some recent developments. Transport Minister Chan and Federal Territories Minister Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad have said that the government was in the midst of revamping public transport.
While details are scant, they have indicated that the exercise will introduce common ticketing, physical integration and an urban transport authority to oversee the sector.
The plan will merge the rail-based network with the bus system, which would then be managed by a “master operator”.
To ensure that the service provided by the master operator is up to mark, the government will draw up a set of key performance indicators for it to follow.
There is, however, some unhappiness that the general public has not been included in the revamp exercise since, public transport users say, it is them and not chauffeur-driven ministers who know the problems best.
“How else can users tell them what they need exactly,” Gurmit said.
There is still cautious optimism that the latest efforts might work.
“With the government’s takeover of the two LRT systems through Syarikat Prasarana Negara Bhd, the government should be in a better position to rectify the above problems,” consultant Lim said.
Also on the way is the takeover of the bus companies, Intrakota and Cityliner.
Others say there is no choice but to make the revamp work.
“Not only will we end up with an underused inefficient collection of trains and LRTs, Kuala Lumpur will suffer from total gridlock with the additional cars on the road,” the other consultant said.
And if the revamp is not successful, it is unlikely that new LRT lines will be built although there is a great need for it in many areas in the Klang Valley, he added.
However, commuters are not holding their breath in anticipation of better service. They have, after all, heard politicians talk about solving their transport woes many times before.
For many, there is only one way out of the suffering. “I’ll buy a car the moment I can afford one,” Krishna Kumari said.