ART: A better fit for Penang

This is unlike the rigid, expensive overhead LRT system that is likely to bleed red ink from day one

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By Rosli Khan and Anil Netto

The population of Penang Island, standing at around 800,000, is simply too small to justify an elevated light rail transit (LRT) system, which is typically meant for cities with over three million people.

Even when factoring in the daily arrivals of business travellers and tourists at the airport, the demand is likely to fall short.

It doesn’t come close to the daily population of two million mentioned by Penang state executive councillor Zairil Khir Johari in his recent interview with Astro Awani. The population of the entire state, including vast parts of mainland Penang outside the LRT catchment pool, is just 1.7 million.

Penang’s population actually slid from 1.7404 million in 2020 to 1.74 million in 2021. That is not surprising given that the total fertility rate for the state has been falling over the years to now only 1.3 children per woman – a drop that is even more pronounced than the national rates – putting it well below the population replacement rate of 2.1 children.

This means it is unlikely that the Penang population will soar to meet an earlier inflated population estimate of 2.45 million by 2030, including 300,000 who were expected to settle on three artificial islands off southern Penang Island – now reduced to just one island.

Why are these population figures important? Because passenger demand is the crucial determinant when considering any mass transit system for urban areas. Many other experts involved in the formulation of passenger demand study will attest to this.

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If a system does not achieve a certain ‘load factor’ (the number of passengers relative to its capacity), it fails. This means the enormous cost of building such a system is wasted. Not only that, it will bleed red ink, through large operational deficits and hence require large government subsidies to prop up the system. This is the experience of China’s urban rail systems.  

These losses and subsidies, whether incurred by the federal government or state government, will ultimately be shouldered by the people – through higher taxes or reduced funds available for essential public services (opportunity cost).

So, it isn’t worth constructing an elevated LRT if it only serves a limited number of passengers, comparable to the capacity of two train carriages, as Zairil suggested. (That itself is an admission that projected ridership figures are likely to be far short of breakeven levels.)

A two-carriage train has a capacity of 400 passengers per trip per direction.

With a six-minute interval, equating to 10 trips per hour, that translates to 4,000 passengers per hour.

For both directions, the total capacity would be 8,000 passengers per hour.

Assuming a 16-hour daily operation (from 6am to 10pm), the total daily capacity would be 128,000.

Can Zairil guarantee that the “Mutiara Line” will have 128,000 daily passengers?

To put this in perspective, the MRT Putrajaya Line, a much larger system serving a much larger population base, managed a daily ridership of 134,000 in May this year.

The Putrajaya MRT spans 57km and serves 36 stations, covering densely populated areas of Kuala Lumpur, such as Kepong, Ampang Park, Persiaran KLCC, TRX and Sungai Besi before ending in Putrajaya.

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Despite operating in a much larger, denser conurbation, it only carried about 134,000 passengers daily in May.

Why, even Rapid Penang buses carry fewer than 100,000 passengers per day – for the entire state of Penang.

So how is the Mutiara Line expected to reach 128,000 daily passengers?

Also, construction of an elevated LRT network involves extensive piling work for columns and foundations. This will either destroy some of George Town’s old buildings or degrade the unique visual streetscape of Penang, which many visitors flock to see.

Let’s not forget, LRT columns will occupy one road lane along its alignment, consuming 3.5 metres of road space that could otherwise be used by ART or other vehicles.

Autonomous rapid transit (ART) or trackless trams and bus rapid transit (BRT) do not require the extensive and disruptive station infrastructure that LRT does. Its street-level stations are friendlier for commuters, pedestrians and people with disabilities. They do not require lifts and escalators, which need regular maintenance.

Autonomous technology is also advancing rapidly. ART and BRT can be more easily rerouted to serve new population centres and destinations at any time.

In contrast, an elevated LRT line with its huge pillars and large concrete overhead stations is inflexible once the infrastructure is put in place. They cannot be rerouted easily to meet changing demographic patterns and commuting trends.

The LRT will take years to build, causing enormous traffic chaos and lost productive time during construction. By the time the LRT is completed, this rigid system will be obsolete. It will be overshadowed by rapidly advancing ART, demand-responsive public transport and digital and AI technology.

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Without first and last-mile connectivity, an LRT system is unlikely to convince people to leave their cars and motorbikes at home. Penang only has about 200-300 buses in operation compared to several thousand buses in Singapore.

The island republic spent years building an extensive bus system before building its MRT system for its six million population. Today, its buses still carry more passengers per day than its entire MRT network.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be the political will in Penang to radically revamp the bus service. Instead, we see more political attention given to mega-projects like the LRT.

While we look into ART and BRT, it would be a wiser use of funds to support Rapid Penang’s move toward demand-responsive technology through its acquisition of 70 smaller new buses.

Such demand-responsive buses, BRT and ART present a more flexible, less disruptive and more future-proof solution for Penang’s transportation needs.

This is unlike the rigid, expensive overhead LRT system that is likely to bleed red ink from day one. Unfortunately, the politicians pushing for an unsustainable LRT system for Penang today are unlikely to be around by the time it is completed to take responsibility for their less-than-prudent investment decision.

Rosli Khan, a traffic planning consultant, has a masters in transport planning and a PhD in transport economics from Cranfield University in England. Anil Netto, a chartered accountant and former Penang Transport Council member, is president of Aliran.

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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Lee CM
Lee CM
11 Jun 2024 10.51pm

Why not consider monorail system ? It cost 50% of LRT but with same PPHPD in term of carrying capacity

KK L
KK L
11 Jun 2024 8.02pm

Why can’t we’re the best of two worlds? Conventional street-level ART is no different to current Rapid Bus service, which is still very slow in congested area and need to wait for the traffic lights. While the elevated LRT is too expensive to build and operate

Then we shld consider ART but run on dedicated elevated road on the busy area while run on street-level road whenever possible

Fahmi
Fahmi
9 Jun 2024 7.26pm

Dedicated lane will ensure ART works better but still better than LRT which is expensive and not old people and oku friendly,

A Q
A Q
9 Jun 2024 2.25pm

And how will this ARL system cope with the traffic bottlenecks which occur on the same roads daily where this ARL trackless busses would ply??

Ahmad Wafri
Ahmad Wafri
9 Jun 2024 8.29am

Its better for ART in term of maintenance and construction but as a user, we want something that can move faster without any obstacles occur, so surely the best choice is LRT as i sit on it own track. I had seen the ART trail at putrajaya, its use the same lane with other private vehicles which is road, it can block the traffic if got accident and nobody want to use it after that. Its need to redesign the road or construct the new one, the cost also will rise for ART. Besides, for the number of passenger you should consider the people from outside the especially from Sungai Petani as the LRT will connect to the KTM thru Penang Sentral. It also serve transportation for tourists that coming to Penang from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore thru ETS.

Ravinder Singh
8 Jun 2024 11.03pm

RIDERSHIP IS THE MOST IMPORTANT factor. The consultant who prepared the 2030 Penang Island Draft Local Plan (since dust-binned due to numerous errors) had said at a briefing he gave in Balik Pulau in Dec 2022 that “HIGH DENSITY APARTMENTS WILL BE BUILT NEAR THE STATIONS TO PROVIDE RIDERSHIP”

Who will be the tens of thousands of people who will move into those apartments?

Where will they be commuting to daily on the LRT that runs from Komtar to the airport?