Cover Story: SPAD’s big plans for public transport

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WITH the construction of the first line of the ambitious but much-needed Klang Valley mass rapid transit in full swing, not many may be aware that this is just one part of the National Land Public Transport Master Plan, a blueprint for the transformation of Malaysia’s public transport system. The master plan involves an estimated capital outlay of a staggering RM180 billion.

The Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD), a regulatory body under the Prime Minister’s Office, drew up the master plan and is charged with implementing it. Starting with the construction of MRT Line 1, the extension of the light rail transit (LRT) to Putra Heights in Selangor and the introduction of Go KL public bus service, SPAD certainly has a lot on its plate.

“There are a lot of things that we have to do to implement the master plan; we don’t have the time to go out and get publicity,” SPAD CEO Mohd Nur Ismal Mohamed Kamal tells The Edge half-jokingly.

Ismal is not as much in the public eye as his counterparts in Prasarana Malaysia Bhd and Mass Rapid Transit Corp Sdn Bhd, companies under the Ministry of Finance tasked with developing the LRT and MRT lines respectively.

“We are in charge of the overall transformation of the public transport system. So, we plan the network, but we can’t be managing the construction. We determine the alignment, the stops and which population catchment to cover.

“SPAD determines the master plan for everybody to come together — taxis, buses, trains. We have to look at total demand, the origins and destinations, what kind of capacity is needed and what kind of growth,” he says.

Under the master plan, a complete overhaul of the nation’s public transport system is envisaged. SPAD has to ensure that public transport caters for commuters from the first mile to the final destination seamlessly, efficiently and reliably.

In view of the government’s target for public transport usage in the Klang Valley of 40% by 2020, SPAD has a lot of projects to be implemented, involving stage buses, taxis, trains and ticketing systems.

Transformation of the stage bus system

For the first mile service, SPAD is working on revamping the stage bus system. A pilot project will be conducted in Alor Setar, Seremban and Kuching — changing the business model of stage bus operators to a gross cost model to ensure services are provided even in low ridership areas.

“Currently, a bus operator applies for a route, we approve it and the operator collects the fares. The risk of ridership is entirely on the operator. So, as people are not happy with buses, they use cars … the ridership drops and the operator cuts services.

“When they cut services, even fewer people will ride buses as they are deemed unreliable. So, it is a vicious circle and it keeps spiralling downwards. What we are doing is moving towards a model where we pay the bus operators by the kilometre,” says Ismal.

Explaining the gross cost business model for bus companies, he says service agreements will be signed between SPAD and the operators. While SPAD will pay the operators for their services on a per kilometre basis, all fares will be collected by the commission.

This way, Ismal reasons, the operators can still provide services even to areas where it is unprofitable for them to run on the current business model. This is because the new business model ensures that the risk of ridership is borne by SPAD rather than the operators.

However, to ensure that the operators provide optimum services, a set of key performance indicators will be outlined by SPAD. Those operators who exceed the KPIs will be given incentives to encourage better services, says Ismal.

Apart from ensuring that commuters are served by stage buses, the gross cost model is a long-term solution to the problem plaguing bus operators, especially in small towns and rural areas.

Many stage bus operators ceased operations as costs ballooned. While the government has provided a RM470 million interim stage bus support fund, it is only a temporary measure to ensure the remaining operators continue to serve the public, says Ismal.

“Under the gross cost model, the operators will still get to run their services. However, we will have a bigger say on how they operate because their revenue depends on us. At present, they run as they like. If they want to run only during peak hours, there is nothing we can do.”

SPAD is also working to improve the services of RapidKL, Rapid Penang and RapidKuantan through its plan to have Prasarana purchase new buses to serve more routes and increase frequency, says Ismal. Besides that, information technology will be employed via an application that will allow users to make better travel decisions.

The application, which is being developed, will provide information, such as the location of bus stops, which bus and route to take, the arrival time of the bus, the duration of the journey and whether it is better to take a bus or taxi or just walk.

The government has also approved a bus rapid transit (BRT) project, linking Kuala Lumpur to Klang via the Federal Highway, says Ismal. The project will cost about RM1 billion with the first phase — between Pasar Seni and Batu Tiga in Shah Alam — to start next year.

With the BRT line, the travel time between the capital and Klang will be reduced to 20 minutes, Ismal says. The project will involve the widening of the Federal Highway to provide a bus lane with some parts of it to be elevated.

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Rail lines as the backbone of public transport

As the construction of MRT Line 1 and the LRT extension progresses, the government has also approved MRT Line 2, connecting Sungai Buloh to Putrajaya. The project awards are expected to be given out next year, says Ismal.

The MRT Line 2 project was initially planned to start by year-end. However, SPAD is still fine-tuning the alignment of the line and the stops as well as how to best integrate it with the public transport system in Putrajaya and Cyberjaya.

“But this is not final. We are thinking how to make it work, how to serve Cyberjaya. Once we begin construction, we cannot change the alignment anymore. So, now is the best time to optimise the catchment area,” says Ismal, explaining the delay.  

At the moment, SPAD is studying the best public transport solution in both Putrajaya and Cyberjaya to be integrated with MRT Line 2. It could be a combination of rail and bus services, says Ismal.

After MRT Line 2, SPAD will be focusing on the third LRT line, which will most probably connect Bandar Utama to Klang. The Bandar Utama LRT station will be integrated with the MRT station there to provide connectivity between the two lines.

An upgrade of the KTM Komuter lines is also on the cards, says Ismal. SPAD aims to improve the punctuality of the rail service as well as increase its frequency to be on a par with a metro system, he adds.

“In order to increase the capacity of the line, we need to fix the tracks to ensure that they are strong enough to handle the increased loads and the signalling and communications systems because the space between the trains will be much narrower.”

There is also a need to divert freight trains onto a different line so that the frequency and speed of the commuter trains can be increased, Ismal says. A new KTM Komuter line connecting Subang Jaya to Subang Skypark is also planned, he adds.

The KL Monorail line is also set to be extended by another 9km to serve the central business district. The capacity of the monorail has been increased by replacing the two-car sets with four-car sets.

The master plan does not only entail capital expenditure as SPAD is studying ways to optimise the infrastructure of KTM Bhd. It is looking at separating the track operations from the train operations so that multiple operators can use the infrastructure.

“There is no point in us investing billions of ringgit in tracks if we can’t optimise their usage,” says Ismal.

Seamless journey via a new ticketing system

To ensure a seamless journey on different types of public transport can be achieved, as in such cities as Hong Kong and London, SPAD is coming up with a similar ticketing system using prepaid cards.

The commission is working with Touch ‘n Go to implement the system, which is expected to cost RM300 million. The business model of Touch ‘n Go, which is majority-owned by CIMB Group Holdings Bhd, will have to be changed, says Ismal.

“We started quite early on the cashless payment system, but other cities, which came later than us, have already achieved 90% penetration using transit cards while we are still at 10%. If the business model is to make money by selling cards, it is not going to work.”

Investing in future capacity and capability

The huge amount the government is spending on improving the public transport system can be seen as investing in the future capacity and capability of local companies, says Ismal. Malaysian construction companies are already experts in building highways and superstructures, for example.

The construction of the Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel and MRT Line 1 has enabled MMC Corp Bhd and Gamuda Bhd to acquire technological know-how in tunnelling through limestone formations beneath the Klang Valley.

As more local companies build their capabilities in constructing the MRT, they could participate in the construction of similar projects in neighbouring countries in the future, Ismal points out.

For example, Gamuda has already showcased its capability through the construction of the Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit Orange Line in Taiwan in 2008. Scomi Engineering Bhd is active in the monorail system sector, bagging projects in Mumbai, India, and Manaus, Brazil.

The demographic spread of well-connected regions is also expected to change dramatically as far-flung areas are brought closer to major urban centres. The KL-Singapore high-speed rail will enable people living in Seremban or Batu Pahat to work in the capital cities as commuting time will be greatly reduced, says Ismal.

Already, Kajang and Semenyih are seeing huge property developments as MRT Line 1 will connect these towns to Cheras, KL, Petaling Jaya and Damansara, which are major centres of employment and entertainment.

“It (investment in public transport) is a critical area for us. Unfortunately, we started a little bit late. After the first KTM Komuter and then the LRT, there was a long period when nothing was done to the public transport system. So, now we are playing catch-up. The cost of not doing it is great,” says Ismal.

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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 06-12, 2014.