Reconsider Penang LRT: Consider better, cheaper, faster options

An unsightly large overhead light rail station in Kuala Lumpur

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By Lim Mah Hui

The federal government should reconsider its funding for Penang’s overhead light rail transit (LRT) on financial and technical grounds.

After several failed attempts by the Penang state government to fund a bloated “Penang Transport Master Plan” (PTMP), it turned to the federal government to finance the LRT, the first project of the PTMP.

Most ordinary people would fully support the urgent need for Penang to have an efficient and affordable public transport system. In fact, members of Penang Forum were the ones who suggested this initiative to the state government soon after it won the 2008 state election. Its representatives served pro bono in the Penang Transport Council.

Civil society, however, is strongly opposed to the revised PTMP that the Penang state government is pushing, not only because it is overblown (in 2015, the project was estimated at RM46bn but will surely cost more now). It is also too car-centric and highway focused and will not solve the transport and mobility challenges of Penang.

The public transport modes pushed by the private sector and proposed in the revised PTMP – elevated LRT and monorail systems to replace trams and buses – are inflexible and limited in coverage. Such transport modes are also financially exorbitant and not viable.

Not only that, the heavy concrete infrastructure for LRT and monorail is environmentally inappropriate and destructive for Penang, which is renowned for its architectural heritage and historical streetscape.

In 2018, a year after the new technology of autonomous rail transit (ART) was introduced in China, Penang Forum suggested to the state government to seriously consider adopting this system. Such a system would be easy and quick to build and highly flexible in terms of coverage. It would cost one-tenth that of an LRT. It would also be environmentally friendlier. 

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Yet, the state government resisted without sound reasons. It dithered and scrambled to raise RM10bn to build a single line that would take many years to construct.

Meanwhile, Sarawak ran with the idea and will soon operate the country’s first ART system. The Star reported that the state’s 70km ART network would cost RM80m per km.

Compare this to Penang’s proposed 20 km LRT line estimated to cost RM10bn, ie 500m per km, which is roughly equivalent to the RM540m per km for the Kuala Lumpur LRT3 system.

And that is just for one line from Komtar to the airport. Are we now looking at RM25-30bn for the LRT network to cover the entire state of Penang, including a cross-channel link?

Compare this to the original Penang transport blueprint prepared by consultants from Halcrow: they had estimated that the entire public transport system – trams (including elevated sections), buses and water taxis – for the whole of Penang state would come up to just RM10bn.

As early as 2015, we highlighted unrealistic ridership projections and the non-financial viability of the Komtar-airport LRT line.

The Gamuda-led SRS Consortium, which had proposed the line, had projected a totally unrealistic initial annual ridership of 42 million for a population catchment of about 250,000 people. With a projected annual operation and maintenance cost of RM170m and an average fare of RM4 per ride, the project was expected to break even.

However, if the ridership were 8 million – a more realistic number that we estimated – the deficit would rise to RM138m. That’s a quarter of the state government’s annual revenue. (Significantly, a few years later, Gamuda reduced its projected ridership to 8 million.) 

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Despite the hundreds of billions of ringgit spent on the mass rapid transit (MRT), LRT and monorails in the Klang Valley, Transport Minister Anthony Loke revealed that the public transport modal share there is only 15%.

It is common knowledge among transport experts that splashing money on an LRT network alone without putting in place proper supporting policies will not solve mobility problems.

Issues of connectivity, flexibility, first and last-mile accessibility, punctuality, priority lanes for public transport vehicles, punctuality and affordability have to be adequately addressed. 

We urge the government not to repeat the mistakes of the Klang Valley public transport experience.

Given all this, the Penang LRT system should be meticulously reviewed technically not only for its claimed ability to resolve transport mobility but also because of the high costs involved.

At a time when Malaysia is facing challenging financial constraints and when ordinary people are struggling with their daily needs, the amount of funding required for the Penang LRT is exorbitant. 

Do we need to spend extravagant sums on mega-projects that may not deliver promised results when better, cheaper and faster alternatives are available? As the chief minister of Sarawak recently said, his state is ready to share its experience in this journey.

Dr Lim Mah Hui is an economist and former international banker

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Lim Chin Beng
Lim Chin Beng
15 Mar 2024 8.12am

Sarawak has ART in Kuchung. Their experience is different from Penang. Over ther there is ample land.and the road reserves are wide enough to built ART stations without the present traffic having to sacrifice road lanes to the ART.
Try to emulate the ART with dedicated ART lanes will result like the BRT in Jakarta.
In built up areas in Kuching Town also required elevated concrete structures to avoid contesting the road lanes below.
Most of Penang Island is as built up or even more than in build up Kuching.
Imagine proposing ART dedicated lane for the Penang would be horrendous to imagine.

On Butterworth and Prai where land is more spacious ART may be suitable.

Penang lang
Penang lang
15 Mar 2024 8.07pm
Reply to  Lim Chin Beng

This is nonsense, now they are building fly over at Jelutong expressway Infront of Tesco. Build the fly over so that rich ppl can easy go to their home. When comes to the people who really need the LRT they said it’s expansive to build, heavy infrastructure, nonsense. People who lives at Penang only know how much we need the LRT.