Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

by State Assemblyman for Pulau Tikus, Joshua Woo Sze Zeng

Over the years, the Penang State Government has reviewed various old and new public transport systems, including Light Rail Transit (LRT), Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART), and on-ground trams.

After assessing costs, infrastructure, commuter habits, system features, models from other cities, and expert analysis, the government opts for an elevated system as the backbone of Penang’s public transport network, supported by feeder buses.

Despite the State Government’s repeated explanations for its decision, there’s still a chorus of pseudo-experts who are adamant with their debunked opinions.

Let me reiterate at least five reasons to shed light on why the State Government is all aboard the elevated LRT system.

Moves more passengers in shorter time

In contrast to on-ground modes of public transportation such as buses, trams, and ART, which contend with traffic congestion, the elevated transit operates seamlessly above the fray, unimpeded by road bottlenecks.

Buses, trams, or ART moving on dedicated lanes can still be slowed down by traffic lights, accidents, and congestion. These systems lack the key advantage of the LRT: a segregated track that bypasses traffic entirely.

Adding extra carriages to trams or ART to increase its ridership capacity will heighten the difficulty of manoeuvring through congested roads. Elevated transit doesn’t have this problem.

It’s a common knowledge that segregated mode is superior in terms of its efficiency compared to road-sharing systems. That’s why University Sains Malaysia’s Professor in Transport Studies, Dato Dr Ahmad Farhan Mohd Sadullah said, “Segregated systems like rail will be more reliable and can provide the closest level of service to private modes.”[1] Only pseudo-experts believe otherwise.

Low accident risk

Elevated system offers a safer operating environment compared to their on-ground counterparts. On-ground systems such as BRT and tram have high accident risk.

Despite designated lanes, TransJakarta, the longest BRT network in Southeast Asia, has seen a notable increase in road incidents from 2015 to 2018. During this period, data shows a significant surge in BRT-related accidents and fatalities, with a 134% increase in accidents and a staggering 233% rise in deaths.[2] The world-famous TransMilenio BRT system in Bogota, Colombia has an average of six accidents reported every day.[3]

Similarly, on-ground tram-related incidents in Australia have surged from 2013-2017, with notable increases in collisions involving pedestrians (85%), infrastructure (175%), and road vehicles (17%). This surge has resulted in 192 injuries, 40 damaged structures, and 4,445 vehicle crashes.[4]

Contrary to pseudo-experts’ advocacy for public transport with high accident risks, the Penang State Government favours the elevated system that will be safer for Penangites.

For future growth

Critics argue that the LRT’s projected ridership is unrealistic and the current population of Penang doesn’t justify the need for the system. However, they overlook the fact that the LRT proposal isn’t just about meeting current demand but planning for the next 50 years.

These pseudo-experts point out that the Kuala Lumpur LRT isn’t meeting ridership expectations, but both EMIR Research and government studies reveal it’s actually overcrowded during rush hour.[5] This has led to additional carriage purchases and a reduction in waiting times to three minutes to meet the increasing peak hour ridership demand.[6] Similar undercapacity during rush hour should be avoided for Penang LRT.

Penang’s population has surged by almost 130% over the last five decades, from 776,124 in 1970 to 1.77 million in 2023.[7] While expecting a similar growth rate in the next 50 years may be optimistic, neglecting to prepare for future expansion could jeopardize the state’s liveability.

While pseudo-experts focus only on the present, the LRT project is aimed at addressing both contemporary and future commuting needs – investing for current and subsequent generations.

ART’s systemic problems

The ART, also known as a trackless tram, operates much like a regular bus system on the road, facing common issues like traffic congestion and high accident risks. The average operating speed of on-ground ART is below 27km/h.[8] The elevated LRT in Kuala Lumpur runs at 40km/h.[9]  

Despite ART’s modern technology, it doesn’t overcome the longstanding traffic problems encountered by BRT or tram systems. Dr. David Levinson, Professor of Transport at the University of Sydney, believes calling the ART as “trackless tram” is silly, as it is essentially an advanced bus operating in a dedicated bus lane.[10]

For ART to be effective, it requires elevated roads separate from regular traffic. Yet, if we’re constructing new roads specifically for ART, why not opt for conventional articulated buses instead? They could be more cost-effective, akin to enhancing the existing Sunway BRT system.

Besides that, research conducted by the Australasian Rail Association highlighted that the ART is an “unproven technology” and has “significant risks” as the system is locked to a single supplier, can be difficult for future maintenance.[11]

ART’s impact on roads

Pseudo-experts advocating for the ART seem to think that the vehicle is ready to be deployed on existing roads, praising its flexibility.

Research on actual ART’s track reveals that the system exerts a substantially greater load impact on roads, up to 221 times higher than usual.[12] This has led to road deformation (rutting), requiring ART’s corridor to be built with specialized semi-flexible pavement.[13] However, this pavement type also causes cracking.[14]

(Photos extracted from J. Reynolds, D. Pham & G. Currie, “Do Trackless Trams need stronger roads? – The “weight” of evidence,” Australasian Transport Research Forum 2021 Proceedings)

Simply put, the ART can cause critical damage to regular roads, thereby requiring specialized pavement construction prior to its implementation and ongoing maintenance thereafter.

Pseudo-experts suggesting easy deployment of the ART on the Penang Bridge or from Komtar to the Penang International Airport are clearly ignorant of the extensive road work and maintenance needed for the system.

Closure of one lane for surfacing work, along with the temporary diversion of the ART’s dedicated track, necessitates the closure of two lanes, leading to increased traffic congestion. Imagine closing two lanes on each side of the Penang Bridge during rush hour to resurface ART track.

Besides, on roads with only two lanes, how can we resurface and divert the ART track without barring other vehicles from using the road? That’s why cities adopting the ART such as Kuching are expanding their road,[15] and Johor is planning to construct new elevated road for the system.[16]

In conclusion, the decision to implement an elevated transit system as the backbone of public transport network in Penang follows a thorough evaluation of various systems. The deliberation process has considered factors such as efficiency, safety, future planning, and analysis of each transport system’s advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, MRT Corporation is now exploring suitable low-medium elevated system to be built in Penang.


[1] https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2019/09/521306/transforming-penangs-transport-system

[2] https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/460566, https://web.archive.org/web/20170130085039/http://www.en.netralnews.com/news/currentnews/read/758/death.toll.in.transjakarta.lane.rises, https://megapolitan.kompas.com/read/2018/12/19/18314171/2018-kecelakaan-transjakarta-meningkat-26-persen

[3] https://colombiareports.com/increase-bus-public-bus-accidents-colombias-capital/

[4] Transport Safety Victoria, 2017 Annual Incident Statistics: Victorian Tram Operators, released in March 2018.

[5] https://focusmalaysia.my/why-are-our-trains-still-so-packed-during-peak-hours/

[6] https://theedgemalaysia.com/article/loke-kelana-jaya-lrt-overcapacity-issue-be-resolved-3q23

[7] 1970’s population from Kuan Heong Woo & Suet Leng Khoo, Ecology and new urban program: A case study of Penang state own brand of affordable housing program, in Journal of Urban Management, vol.9, issue 2, June 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2226585619301359; 2023’s population is from Penang Institute, https://penanginstitute.org/resources/key-penang-statistics/visualisations-of-key-indicators/penang-population-and-demographics/  https://www.dosm.gov.my/v1/index.php?r=column/cone&menu_id=SEFobmo1N212cXc5TFlLVTVxWUFXZz09

[8] Jianghua, Fang & Yunqing, Hu & Xiwen, Yuan & Ruipeng, Huang & Lei, Xiao & Chenlin, Zhang. (2024). Autonomous-rail Rapid Transit Tram: System Architecture, Design and Applications. Green Energy and Intelligent Transportation. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2773153724000136

[9] https://www.railway-technology.com/projects/kuala-lumpur-driverless-metro/?cf-view

[10] https://transportist.org/2019/10/23/on-trackless-trams/

[11] Australian Railway Association, The Renaissance of Light Rail, Research Paper April 2021, https://ara.net.au/publication/the-renaissance-of-light-rail/

[12] James Reynolds, David Pham, and Graham Currie, “Do Trackless Trams need stronger roads? – the

“weight” of evidence,” Australasian Transport Research Forum 2021 Proceedings, 8-10 December, Brisbane, Australia, https://australasiantransportresearchforum.org.au/do-trackless-trams-need-stronger-roads-the-weight-of-evidence/

[13] Pan, Biao, Hongjian Zhang, Song Liu, Minghui Gong, and Jun Yang. 2023. “Dynamic Responses of Semi-Flexible Pavements Used for the Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit.” Applied Sciences 13, no. 6: 3673. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/13/6/3673

[14] Jiang, L., Gong, M., Xiong, Z., Liu, S., Fan, J., Xu, Z., & Hong, J. (2024). In situ mechanical response characteristics of Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) applied to semi-flexible asphalt pavements. Road Materials and Pavement Design, 1–20. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14680629.2024.2324968

[15] https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2024/01/01/sarawak-metro-speeds-up-rail-contract-awards

[16] https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2024/05/14/johor-bahrus-elevated-art-to-have-32-stations/