Op-Ed: Why light rail would be a better option for Penang

This article by Anil Netto appeared in the blog http://anilnetto.com on 4 April  2016.  ( http://anilnetto.com/society/public-transport/komtar-penang-airport-lrt-not-good-idea/. It is our view that this is the kind of critical independent discussion that is needed, point by point on every page and every line of the “Master Plan” now being vigorously defended by the state government.)

We do need a rapid transit from George Town to the airport but not in the way the Penang transport masterplan envisages.

It is not appropriate for a world heritage site or its vicinity to have raised transport infrastructure, which would be intrusive to the landscape. Moreover, what is planned seems out of keeping and oversized for the needs of Penang.

Instead, it would be more feasible and economical for light rail to run at street level in the city, rising to elevated level where required. It should be kept at ground level as far as possible.

The alignment of the track should take into account the residential density e.g. how many people can access the station within 400m.

The present alignment does not appear to include Queensbay or nearby areas, where many people are expected to live and visit.

If we have an an Airport-Komtar LRT line, what happens when people arriving in Penang airport want to head to Tanjung Tokong and beyond in the north? This means they would have catch an LRT train to Komtar, George Town, where they would to disembark and walk some way to a different platform to board a monorail for the onward journey to Tanjung Tokong and further north. With all their luggage.

Instead, we should have a street-level system which can easily branch out at interchanges to various destinations. Why do we need to have a cocktail of systems, ie elevated LRT, street-level trams and monorail? These are three different systems requiring separate management, operations and maintenance personnel, and depots.

Elevated LRT and monorail systems would be difficult and expensive to expand. Each elevated LRT station would be huge and expensive to build. In KL each, each LRT station covers 0.5-1.0 acre. Many cities are trying to avoid this kind of heavy infrastructure.

Check out this large LRT station:

Malaysia Klng Valle LRT station

And compare it with a street-level station:

tramway stop example for Penang

Which do you think will cost more?

If we have an elevated LRT system, the Penang airport station would have to be some distance away from the airport terminal proper.

An alternative street-level system

We should have one system: street-level light rail that can be elevated at certain difficult stretches. With light rail, the street-level stations are smaller, more accessible, and can be located near park-and-ride amenities.

These light rail trains can also run on underground power; so there may be no need for wires – and no need to cut down trees.

A typical elevated LRT system costs RM220m/km whereas street level light rail costs just RM60m/km. The savings could be better used elsewhere like improving public transport in areas on the mainland not covered by the transport masterplan.

We also need to look at the feeder-bus services, taxis and park-and-ride strategies for the light rail.

Look at Melbourne, with a population of 4.6m, almost three times larger than Penang’s. It has the largest (street- level) light rail network in the world with 250km of track with annual ridership of 150m.

Melbourne’s busiest route – the 19km Box Port to Port Hill with 67 stations – carries 15m per year, with trams running every six to seven minutes during peak hours.

In contrast, according to those who have sighted the request for proposals, the Penang Airport-Komtar LRT route is projected to be used by 14,700 passengers per hour per direction by 2055. (This would probably be equivalent to around say 40m passengers per year.) But the infrastructure that is to be built now is meant for 18,500 pphpd.

So are we saying that Penang in 2055 would be bigger than Melbourne is now?

If we adopted a light rail network, we could save billions in costs. The savings could be used to:
– reduce the extent of land reclamation required to finance the swap deal,
– reduce the road damage to the hills by tunnelling longer stretches through the hill, and
– improve the transport network on the mainland.

Check out the alignment here.

The entire masterplan can be found here.

Email your comments and feedback to pgmasterplan@penang.gov.my

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About the author:

Anil NettoAnil Netto is involved in the social reform groups Aliran and Penang Forum, which discusses sustainable development issues. He blogs at anilnetto.com.  In his “previous life”, Anil trained and worked as a chartered accountant and external auditor in England before returning to Malaysia to be immersed in corporate life. Before long, he found himself drawn to journalism and writing about human rights, socio-economic justice issues and sustainable development issues. He believes we can build a more just and compassionate world while caring for the environment.



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About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton

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