Malaysia Invested a Lot on Its Trains. Why Aren’t More People Using Them?

In the Greater Kuala Lumpur area, only about 20 percent of people take public transportation.
December 21, 2020, 10:33am
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Members of the media board a Malaysia Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train after the official launch of the MRT Sungai Buloh-Kajang (SBK) line in Kuala Lumpur in July 2017. Photo: MOHD RASFAN, AFP

In 2017, the Sungai Buloh-Kajang (SBK) train line entering the Greater Kuala Lumpur area (aka Klang Valley) became fully operational. The line is part of the Klang Valley Metro Rail Transit (KVMRT) and has driverless four-car metro trains made out of stainless steel and recyclable materials. Stations are fitted with facilities like lifts and ramps for the disabled, escalators, customer service centers, and prayer rooms. And with unlimited travel passes for locals, it’s also relatively affordable. But for all its hype, many Malaysians still don’t use the trains. 

“Our government has spent a lot of money [but] hasn’t learned from their own experiences and best practices around the world. They haven’t looked at the fundamental issues that are holding our transportation back, and part of how those things need to be addressed,” Cheong Sze Hoong Zac, public transport enthusiast and member of public transport advocacy group TRANSIT Malaysia, told VICE World News.

The KVMRT is part of the Malaysian government’s ongoing efforts to improve public transport in the country. It has three planned lines intended to connect Kuala Lumpur with its adjoining cities and towns. The first to launch was the SBK line, which cost RM 21 billion ($5.2 billion) to develop. The government set aside another RM 28 billion ($6.93 billion) for the second line, which is scheduled to open by 2022. Even with the third line’s budget still to be discussed, this makes the KVMRT one of the government’s largest infrastructure projects to date. 

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The SBK line was estimated to have a ridership of about 400,000 per day and was created to reduce traffic congestion. But after an initial surge in ridership from excited commuters in 2017, the figure settled at half, with a daily ridership of about 208,000 in 2019. The line would need at least 250,000 to break even. It also seems to have had no effect on traffic congestion. The TomTom Index shows that congestion levels in Kuala Lumpur have not improved over the years, and actually grew 2 percent since the year the SBK Line began operations.  

“Unfortunately, people didn’t realize that just building rail wouldn’t be enough to fill the gaps [in Klang Valley’s] public transportation,” Zac said.

The percentage of people who use public transport in Klang Valley sits at around 20 percent. The previous government aimed to get 40 percent of citizens to use public transport by 2020. The current government now hopes to achieve that by 2030. 

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“The problem with public transportation [in Klang Valley] is that it’s not convenient,” Fazley Fadzil, an urban planning student at the University of Technology Malaysia and member of TRANSIT Malaysia, told VICE World News. “You go out of your house, you look out, and you see the MRT station is across a six-lane highway. Before you even get to the highway, you have to go through unpaved sidewalks, cross multiple routes, and climb the stairs to get to the station itself.” 

Klang Valley, like many of its neighboring Southeast Asian megacities, was designed for private vehicles. Many key decision makers still believe that road infrastructure is synonymous with economic success.

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This makes “first-mile and last-mile” connectivity a major issue for commuters. The feeder buses that were intended to help commuters get from the suburbs to the train stations are known to be notoriously unreliable — they come and go infrequently and at unpredictable times, and do not stick to scheduled timetables. Zac said that he takes private vehicles to get to the train stations, either by driving himself and parking nearby or by taking an e-hailing service like Grab, which would offset the affordability of taking public transport. 

The locations of the stations have also been found to be inaccessible to its target demographic. A 2018 study titled “The MRT Report: The Affordability of Homes Surrounding MRT Stations” looked into the placement of the SBK line’s stations and found that many are located between upscale neighborhoods. The Pusat Bandar Damansara MRT Station is situated in one of the most expensive neighborhoods that can only be afforded by rich expats and 1 percent of the Malaysian population. A community that, as Fazley put it, “can afford BMWs of their own.” 

So instead of getting on trains, Malaysians just buy cars. Fuel is subsidized through the Petrol Subsidy Scheme and the city is fitted with ample parking spaces. The government also established a car manufacturing plant in 1983 that sells domestic automobiles at lower costs than imported ones. 

Once a car is purchased, the likelihood of citizens using alternative modes of transport then diminishes. And because maintenance is cheap, it may even be more cost-effective in the long-run as compared to using public transport, especially if users end up taking e-hailing services to get to train stations. 

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“Our society is so entrenched in a car-centric mindset. The aspiration of every middle class [person] is to buy a car. Even if they can’t get a car, they will get a motorbike so it’s a private vehicle. There’s no way public transportation can catch up with the mindset of the people,” Zac said. 

There’s been an increase in cyclists on the roads since the pandemic started and e-scooters are fast becoming a popular transportation option, although the government now plans to ban them in Kuala Lumpur starting 2021.

One of the biggest challenges that the government needs to address to improve public transport in Klang Valley is connectivity. Feeder bus services need to be accessible, reliable, and frequent in order for public transportation to be more convenient than taking a car. But addressing this issue is a chicken and egg conundrum. Many private bus services lack the resources to keep up operations due to unprofitability. This has led to the sudden and unforeseen closure of bus routes. But the inefficiency of the feeder buses is what has turned residents away from using their services in the first place. 

The government has acknowledged that railway networks are currently underutilized and that connectivity is a challenge. Deputy Transport Minister Datuk Kamaruddin Jaffar mentioned this in his keynote address at the 2020 Malaysia Economic and Strategic Outlook Forum, saying that the government plans to ensure connectivity in urban areas by including three new routes for their Go Kuala Lumpur free city bus service, testing out bike hailing services, and encouraging the use of e-hailing apps. 

According to TRANSIT Malaysia, the government also has to figure out a way to make public transport more cohesive across Klang Valley, because public transport operators are a mixed bag of public and private owners. 

“We have municipal councils versus our train network operators and owners like RapidKL. The [municipal councils] do their own thing and the MRT does its own thing,” Zac said. 

For many commuters, ease of access is the main priority. “People don't really care what the model of the train is,” Fazley said. “People just care about getting from point A to point B and that’s about it.”