Saturday, July 4, 2009

KTM Komuter- A decade and half not enough to be world class?

The KTM Komuter which runs through the heart of the nation's capital has been awful in both quality and punctuality. Since 1995, the KTM Komuter remains the sole railway network which connects large suburban neighbourhoods and satellite towns surrounding Kuala Lumpur to the heart of the city. Many depend heavily on its service daily despite having to face frustration and annoyance ever day for substandard service. Something just has to be done!

The KTM Komuter is notorious for cancellations, delays, breakdowns and overcrowded cars which occur on a daily basis. First introduced in 1995 to help ease traffic congestion in Kuala Lumpur and reducing travel time, it is depressing to know that it takes less time to drive to the city centre today than taking the KTM Komuter.

It is KTM Komuter's unwritten rule to have 20 minute intervals between trains but we all know it would take a fool or a tourist from Singapore or Hong Kong (where they enjoy efficient and punctual railway services) to at least believe half of that bullocks. The fact is that on many occasions, KTM Komuter trains arrive at stations once every 30 minutes and sometimes even to an hour at peak hours or heavy rain.

The KTM Komuter trains also suffer frequent breakdowns with many excuses ranging from power failure to mechanical problems. Thus, it is high time the government intervene to address this appalling state of affairs. KTM Komuter has enjoyed a relative period of monopoly in the railway business. However, that does not mean they are given the ticket to be complacent and incompetent in their service to the public.

One of the major reason why the KTM Komuter is so inept is their inability to cope with high ridership levels which have risen since 1995 and will continue to do so long into the future. However, the indecisiveness by both the KTM Bhd and the Ministry of Transport is to blame for the current state of the KTM Komuter service.

The KTM Komuter rail network spans 173km but has only 53 units (out of its original 63) to cover that kind of distance. With daily ridership of about 101,000, KTM's newest unit of the fleet was commissioned in 1997. That was more than 12 years ago. In other words, no serious steps were actually taken to cope with rising passenger traffic for more than a decade!

KTM announced on February 7 2008 that they will purchase 8 new commuter train sets (with four cars each) that will guarantee increased passenger capacity. Currently three car train sets are serving the route. And on May 2009, KTM said they will introduce eight EMU (Electric Multiple Unit) Hybrid trains by June to use as a temporary solution should any problem arise with existing trains or for peak hours.

The EMU Hybrid train is a set of existing KTM Komuter train which uses diesel locomotive power with the help of a Power Generating Car that provides electricity for the air-conditioning, audio/ visual system and train doors. Kind of defeating the purpose of having a electrified commuter service, ain't it?

Speaking from my personal experience as a commuter, I still have not seen any improvements to the daily cancellations, delays and overcrowded cars the service is notorious for. I believe many fellow communters share the same view.

Also, I find it very puzzling to see newer stations being added to the already inefficient line in the past 5 years when KTM itself do not even have enough trains to properly function for the existing number of stations. Having newer stations mean higher passenger loads and ultimately, longer delays as the trains need to stop longer and at more places in a day. With new trains not expected to arrive by 2010, how would KTM expect its current fleet to cope with the increased passenger traffic when these stations open?

Perhaps KTM should consider standardizing the amount of time a train takes to travel from one station to the next one. The distances may vary between two stations along the line but that can be compensated by either increasing or decreasing the speed of which the train travels between such two stations.

Also, the KTM could try setting a maximum amount of passengers per car for a train to avoid long boarding times. Since trains have to be at a certain time and distance apart from each other, longer boarding times at Station A could delay the entire line! Current KTM policy (from personal experience) suggests that the driver should attempt to sardine-pack as many passengers as possible before embarking. This, I believe, has a multiplying effect on train delays.

Of course, to ensure all of the above could be carried out effectively, KTM must ensure its trains are all rail-worthy and well maintained to avoid unnecessary mechanical or electrical failures. But above all, having additional trains to ease the pressure should be the priority if the KTM wants to be able to handle the ever increasing passenger volume in years to come. KTM cannot expect its decade-old and limited number of trains to continue ferrying the masses to the city centre for the long haul.

Former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi famously took a one-hour journey on the KTM Komuter and the LRT. He said he was not satisfied with the rail services and wanted immediate improvements to be made after listening to complaints from fellow commuters and experiencing the horrendous service first hand. He told reporters the following:

“I just saw the plight of people using the trains to get to work every morning. They were jostling to get on board every time a train arrived. There appeared to be no system."
“There were many more suggestions given me by the passengers for my attention. I (Badawi)will strive for improvements, I will propose changes.” [The Star, 21/8/08]
Proposing is one thing. Actually getting it to happen is another.