Penang needs more buses – not a RM3.4b monorail system

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The lack of a efficient public transport system in Penang has become a major election issue. Instead of improving the efficiency of the bus system and providing more buses, the government seems intent on blowing RM3.4 billion on an expensive monorail system. Choong Sim Poey responds to this development on behalf of Cepat, a coalition calling for improved public transport.

Cepat, a coalition of NGOs very much
concerned with public transport issues in Penang, is surprised with
the report in the Straits Times (Thursday, 6 March) titled ‘MRCB-led
group wraps up Penang monorail talks’. This is a huge project which will
disrupt our lives during the three or four years while it is being
built. The lack of prior public consultation is surprising, given the
commitment of the government to openness, accountability and
transparency.

We need to know how it will affect us
and how our cultural assets will be affected. For instance it has
been rumoured that a major station will be built next to Suffolk
House, the jewel in our crown. We refer to the destruction of Koay
Jetty, when an irreplaceable cultural site was destroyed by the
placement of a transport hub.

The monorail will cost RM3.4 billion.
That is nearly 10 times the annual state budget of Penang. We suggest
there are cheaper solutions. With RM50 million, RapidPenang has been
able to start an effective bus service. While it is not perfect, it
has made a noticeable difference. If given an additional one-tenth of
the monorail budget, RapidPenang will be able to get more buses to
make a more significant impact than it has so far done. We believe
if properly financed and managed it will solve our traffic problems
for the next 5 to 10 years. Monorails or similar systems should be
considered only when the full potential of buses has been fully
developed.

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In our view, the decision makers should
seriously reconsider the wisdom of this scheme. A monorail will be
very inflexible and can only operate on very limited routes. Buses on
the road are more flexible and a large enough fleet can cover the
whole state, and bring the benefit of good public transport to many
more people and much better value for every dollar spent. Investing
on the monorail is like solving a ten-ringgit problem with a
ten-thousand-ringgit solution.

We are also not convinced that the
monorail will be economically feasible. The last traffic study by
Halcrow-Fox suggests that the passenger volume will not be enough to
make it viable. There is the inherent risk that, like similar systems
in KL, it will not pay for itself and will require a bailout by the
tax-payers, like it did for the KL systems. This is another advantage
of buses: in the unlikely event that they fail, the bailout is much
cheaper.

There is no doubt in our minds that
buses should be the first line of response as a solution to traffic
congestion, especially in a small place like Penang.

The question of connectivity is crucial
in making mass transit systems effective. Given our still deplorable
bus and taxi service we cannot see a good feeder service being put in
place in time for the monorail. Without it, the monorail will
certainly fail as the KL operators found out at our expense.

Lastly, we question the technical
suitability of monorails, which many experts say is less reliable
than light rail systems. The experience in KL and elsewhere seems to
confirm this view.

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In conclusion, we are of the view that
monorails are too expensive, technically doubtful, inflexible and may
not even be financially viable. Buses, on the other hand, are much
cheaper, more flexible, capable of a much wider coverage and unlikely
to fail. Buses are the way to go for the time being.

Summary:

 

  • Cepat disagrees with the implementation
    of the monorail project announced recently.
  • Such a mega
    project should have involved more public knowledge and
    consultation.
  • We question the government’s judgement in
    giving priority to this RM3.4 billion project against its lack of
    support for Rapid Penang.
  • Priority should be given to needs of
    Rapid Penang, which is short of an extra 100 new buses, for which a
    promise was made last year.
  • We question the economic viability
    of this scheme, an opinion supported by the Transport study by
    Halcrow.

The government and transport authorities should
seriously reconsider the wisdom of going ahead with this scheme.

 Dr Choong Sim Poey is coordinator of Cepat

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