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Is a RM10bn elevated light rail system the best option for Penang?

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In the second of a three-part series, Lim Mah Hui and Ahmad Hilmy explain why trackless trams could be a better, cheaper, faster option than an elevated light rail transit system.

A fully-integrated public transport system based on the modification of the Halcrow Plan can be implemented at less than RM10bn in place of the overblown RM46bn “PTMP”.

Replacing elevated light rail with trackless trams to save RM9bn

Penang Forum consistently demands and fully supports a good public transport system. The main question is, is the elevated light rail transit (LRT) system the right choice?

After a town hall meeting in September 2018, where Penang Forum suggested that the Penang government explore replacing the LRT with autonomous rail transit (ART), the government sent a delegation to China in early 2019 to study its ART system.

To date, the public has been kept in the dark as to the findings of this study mission.

We propose that the government should at the least give the public an account of the objectives of such trips, what was learned and adopted, what was not and why. What was the cost? We await their report.

Meanwhile, the Sarawak government also sent a delegation to study the ART and has announced its intention of adopting this new technology.

Nevertheless, scholars have also visited China to study the ART. Among the most prominent is Peter Newman, who won the 2018 Western Australia Scientist of the Year award and has studied train systems for over 40 years.

Newman had this to say: “I went to China to check out the CRRC trackless tram (ART). I came back convinced it’s a transformative transit technology.”

The ART is cheaper, with researchers estimating construction costs at A$6m (RM17m) to A$8 million (RM22m) per kilometre for each set of three cars plus a station.

This is a fraction of the elevated LRT, which costs at least A$50m (RM141m) per kilometre. Penang’s elevated LRT is estimated to cost RM220m per kilometre, ie 10 times more expensive than an ART.

The ART is better, more flexible and with the same, if not higher, carrying capacity. The standard ART system is three carriages, which can carry 300 people. It can take five carriages and 500 people if needed.

The ART’s carrying capacity is estimated at 12,000-30,000 people per hour, per kilometre on a single 50km/h lane – higher than the LRT, which can carry 10,000-20,000 people per hour.

The ART is much faster to install since no tracks are needed. It operates on an autonomous optical guidance system with GPS and Lidar technologies along invisible tracks.

Trackless trams avoid the worst features of an elevated LRT system – disruption and cost. It would take an estimated six to seven years to build the Penang LRT, causing major disruptions in the state.

According to Newman, ART lines can be painted literally over a weekend. It takes a few months to build the stations, not six years. Prefabricated stations can be installed.

The ART can travel quickly and smoothly. Newman was on an ART and witnessed kids running up and down the tram aisle while it was going at 70 km/h.

Australia is studying new ways of financing the ART, with private investors paying for land along the route, road preparations, construction of tram carriages and even operations in that corridor.

In Penang, the Bayan Lepas-FTZ area is densely populated. ART corridors will benefit the private sector.

In this regard, Penang can explore joint ventures with private investors to determine the stations and route, build and operate the ART system.

“This allows for more efficient use of the infrastructure, new sources of funding, a reduction in car dependency, and increase in economic growth and productivity,” says research assistant Sebastian Davies-Slate.

The table at the top compares the strengths and weakness of BRT, LRT and ART. Without doubt, the ART comes up on top.

Penang has a small but strong bus-building industry. Given that the ART technology is a cross between tram and bus, Penang should explore with China the possibility of technology transfer.

In light of all the above, the Penang government must justify why it is choosing the RM9.6bn elevated LRT over technology that is better, cheaper and faster. It cannot hide behind the excuse that LRT is elevated and does not take road space.

Conclusion: ART is better, cheaper and faster.

Cost savings: RM9bn.

Lim Mah Hui is a former professor, international banker and Penang Island City Councillor for six years. Ahmad Hilmy is a transport engineer who teaches at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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