Penang Forum welcomes the federal government’s intervention in coming up with a more comprehensive public transport network for the entire state of Penang.
According to Transport Minister Anthony Loke, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has pointed out that mainland Penang should not be left out of transport infrastructure plans.
This is consistent with Penang Forum’s stand all along: that the public transport infrastructure should cover the whole state.
Loke and the Penang state government has been talking about an “LRT” system.
But it is important to emphasise that light rail transit is not limited to the massive overhead LRT that people in Kuala Lumpur are familiar with. Light rail transit has been defined as “a form of passenger urban rail transit characterised by a combination of tram and rapid transit features”.
This means that articulated modern trams and modes other than an overhead LRT line also fall under the definition of light rail transit.
The crucial question is whether the proposed multi-billion ringgit overhead LRT proposed by Gamuda, which is its standard business, is the most suitable and cost-efficient public transport mode for a state with a small population like Penang?
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What about other modes like buses, trackless trams, minibuses and water taxis?
Right from the start, Penang Forum had pointed out how the Gamuda-led SRS Consortium’s bloated “Penang Transport Master Plan” diverged radically from the original transport blueprint put forward by the state government’s then transport consultants, Halcrow.
Halcrow had proposed a RM10bn public transport component that would cover the entire state. This would comprise primarily buses, trams and water taxis. An overhead LRT system was never mentioned.
In contrast, the first phase of the RM46bn SRS PTMP alone would cost RM20bn – RM10bn for the Bayan Lepas-Komtar LRT and another RM10bn for the environmentally risky six-lane Pan Island Highway. Crucially, this first phase mainly focused on Penang Island and would take years to complete. It would neglect – for a decade or more – the congestion on mainland Penang, the first Penang bridge and its approach roads.
So Anwar’s desire that any new public transport infrastructure should not neglect mainland Penang is a welcome development.
But rather than push ahead with a costly overhead LRT system, Loke should stick to his initial position when first confronted with SRS’ plan for the overhead LRT on Penang Island.
In September 2018 Loke, as transport minister in the first Pakatan Harapan federal government, said Penang’s plans to build an (overhead) LRT may not be the best bet to improve public transport in the state.
He said a study conducted by the Ministry of Transport showed that (the overhead) LRT might not be feasible. He did not elaborate on other options, but did mention “trams and other modes” in broad terms.
A high-level Penang government delegation then met Loke, presumably to convince him to stick to SRS Consortium’s overhead LRT proposal.
This time around, Loke has a chance to come up with a forward-looking mobility masterplan after a decade wasted on the SRS PTMP, which was supposed to be financed by massive land reclamation to create three artificial islands (now scaled down to one). Obviously, this financing model and the proposed transport modes and routes have completely failed.
So the SRS PTMP should be scrapped, and the MoT should explore more sustainable options like pedestrian walkways, cycling routes, buses, street level trackless trams (which can be elevated along certain congested sections), a cross-channel rail route and extensive ‘water bus’ routes.
As modern technology does not require the laying of tracks, a street-level light rail or modern tram system can be built in a matter of months, not years.
This would minimise the period of traffic disruption during the construction period and would cost only a fraction of the budget for an overhead LRT system. Sarawak is already putting in place such a street-level system of autonomous trams complemented by buses.
Indeed, Penang’s transport network should be built on a foundation of an excellent bus system, to ensure first and last-mile connectivity for any rail network. After all, Singapore maximised the potential of its buses and created excellent pedestrian facilities before launching its mass rapid transit system. In contrast, Penang has only 200-300 buses in service compared to several thousand buses running in Singapore today.
Loke should also look into the poorly designed Penang Sentral mega-project, a concrete white elephant that is so pedestrian unfriendly. This federal project was conceived in 2007, before there was even a state-wide transport masterplan – and it shows. What do we do with this jarring project now?
Finally, we urge the federal government not to follow the SRS thinking of heavy overhead LRT infrastructure and instead think of more pedestrian-friendly and financially feasible modes of light rail, largely at street level. Many cities in Europe and elsewhere have already adopted lighter forms of light rail that have received high passenger satisfaction ratings.
Penang badly needs a financially feasible sustainable mobility plan that will integrate various modes of transport, including pedestrian and cycling facilities.
We strongly recommend that Loke seeks the assistance of world-renowned sustainable mobility planning experts to come up with a mobility masterplan Penang can be proud of.
Penang Forum steering committee
23 July 2023