Thursday, June 10, 2010

Public Transport: Back To Square One

Letter from TRANSIT on Malaysian Public Transport, by Moaz Ahmad:

I have been actively following public transport in Malaysia for more than 5 years. Some of my friends and those in the industry have been involved for decades and have shared detailed stories about where public transport was in the past and how far (in some but not most cases) it has moved forwards.

We cannot argue that there has been no change in public transport. In these short 5 years I have seen 4 announcements of LRT extensions, 3 Minister's of Transport, 2 Prime Ministers and of course, 1Malaysia.

To my eyes the biggest action with the potential for the greatest change comes from the creation of Malaysia's Land Public Transport Commission, SPAD, with Syed Hamid Albar as Chair and Prime Minister Najib Razak as Minister-in-Charge. Thankfully, the Prime Minister has taken the advice of the public and taken on the responsibility of SPAD for himself, showing the nation that he is clear in his goals to improve public transport in Malaysia.

The interesting this is that this week, while the Prime Minister was announcing the creation of SPAD and the assignment of Syed Hamid Albar as Chair, other people were making unsolicited proposals for an MRT network in the Klang Valley and reviving the proposal for a High Speed Rail link between KL and Singapore.

The proposals which have a collective value of RM30-50 billion are even more amazing because those who have provided these unsolicited proposals (MMC-Gamuda and an unnamed "BN component party with a power-base in Johor") will protect themselves and reap all the benefits while the government (and ultimately, the Rakyat) are expected to take on the risks.

Even more interesting is that these proposals are not new. Look in the archives of the Malaysian newspapers over the past 5 years and you will see dozens of announcements for mega public transport projects - in 2005 there was the 4 monorail lines. In 2006 there was to be LRT extensions worth RM10 billion. In 2007 there was to be a new LRT line from Kota Damansara to Cheras. In 2008 the money saved from the reduced petrol subsidy was promised to public transport. In 2009 we heard of the LRT extensions again, along with the new LRT line again. So in 5 years not much has really happened - just more announcements and projects that appear to be ready to start at any time - but overall, no real change to the industry.
In this time when it has become clear to us that subsidies are unsustainable and that many countries are now looking at cutting down on mega projects and debts, some people really want to see more massive investments without careful planning and economic study.

Unfortunately, few of these people are really interested in solving the institutional and regulatory problems that are plaguing the public transport industry. Nor are they interested in any kind of "people first" planning. Instead, they want to build more rail lines with the primary hope of making money and achieving economic benefits - for themselves first.

Frankly, before we can build more LRT lines or MRT lines, we have to solve existing problems in the industry - like the poor treatment of public transport workers (who do not receive regular salaries or benefits), the flouting of rules, the dismal safety record, and above all, the ineffective and costly "entrepreneurial" model for public transport that has done little for the industry beyond enriching permit owners.

I expect Najib Razak, Syed Hamid Albar, and SPAD CEO Mohd Nor Ismail Nor Kamal to take charge and resolve these problems first. Then, they can look at creating Local Public Transport Organizing Authorities to plan, organize and manage public transport in the 6 largest cities and economic regions of Malaysia - the Klang Valley, Johor Baru, Penang, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and Ipoh.

Once the bus and taxi services have been stabilized by these local Organizing Authorities, the government can provide an investment of RM1billion for each region as an inducement to build a complete and cost-effective rapid transit network. This money would be an initial investment from the 10th Malaysia Plan.

Imagine that with only RM6 billion, some minor changes in regulation, and a lot of strong leadership, we would be able to see reliable, effective and complete public transport networks in the 6 largest cities in Malaysia!

RM6 billion may not seem like a lot of money but it can work wonders if it is spent in a careful, cost-effective way. On the other hand, RM30-50 billion spent carelessly can leave us worse than we were when we started.

If we really want to see public transport change over the next 5 years we need a real vision for service-based public transport that puts people first, and focuses on performance - not mega projects that put companies and profits first and end up performing below expectations.


Moaz Yusuf Ahmad
Petaling Jaya
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