Archive for July 2017

The MRT is finally here

27 July 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 24 July 2017 issue)

Hooray! Kuala Lumpur finally has a mass rapid transit (MRT)! And it’s even better than anything in London and New York! I want to say something else that needs an exclamation mark but I can’t think of anything!
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Don’t get me wrong, I love KL’s light rail transit (LRT). It is so cute and dinky, like the little train that goes around Disneyland. But building such a tiddly train system was an unusual choice for a city that needs to move millions every single day. During rush hour, the system is absolutely bursting with commuters struggling to get onto trains that might be frequent but are simply too small, and people’s backpacks are so big. Like many things in the crazy 1990s, the investment of time and money into the LRT was a wasted opportunity. I have travelled on public transport systems around the world and I think that KL’s LRT is simply not good enough. Unfortunately, it is not possible to rip it out, start again and build a mass transport system that is worthy of an ever-growing capital city of an ambitious country with a sizeable economy. But now we finally have the MRT that promises to be able to carry a lot of people with effortless ease. We should be grateful because, I have been told, it is a gift from the government which could have spent money on, I don’t know, a giant teddy bear but, instead chose to give something to the people. I think I speak for us all when I say that I am grateful because, you know, it’s only the capital city and it’s only 2017.

I have not yet travelled on the new MRT. I am sure it is very good because the prime minister and his wife have been on it and they are very classy. Although I am not sure if the system offers frequent flyer miles, I will eventually follow their example and take a trip on the MRT. But for me, it would only be a day trip. Just as I hardly ever use the LRT, I will not use the MRT regularly either. Both systems may go where I want to go but they do not go from anywhere that I actually am. Where I live, I can drive to the Suria KLCC car park in 12 minutes if there is no traffic. It can be nearly an hour with traffic but that is still less than the 1½ hours it would take to walk to the nearest LRT station, and I don’t know if you have noticed but it’s hot out there. But I live in a development on the top of a hill that was built without any regard for a then non-existent train system (or much regard for geology either). You need a car to live where I live and I am one of those terribly out-of-touch people you have been reading about because I don’t even know where the nearest bus station is.

KL has evolved around the car. KL has not grown like densely built pre-car cities such as London and New York but is spread out like the car-age sprawl of Los Angeles. We have a car city that needs to have a train system retroactively built on top of it. On the surface, our fabulous MRT trains might look shiny and new but it is otherwise incorrect to compare our transport system needs with London’s and New York’s, where a metro station is at most a 15-minute walk away. For KL to have a truly effective mass transport system, we would need to build an enormous network that snakes all over the place in order to serve already-established developments, unlike London, where a Tube station might have been built in the middle of nowhere in 1900 and a community subsequently grew around it.

Hoping for a mass transport system that is effective in the same way as London’s or New York’s is probably asking too much of the government’s generosity. It has already given us so much and we must be grateful. And besides, a lot of people would lose their homes by compulsory purchase, which is what happened when the LRT system was built. Unfortunately, the opportunity was missed in the 1990s. That packed train has probably already left the station.

However much we might want to compare ourselves to London and New York, there is another city where I am sure we all have property: Los Angeles. The LA Metro Rail system has been growing in size and popularity since its first line was opened as recently as 1990. It now has six lines and 93 stations, which is small compared with the London Underground’s 270, and it carries a mere 350,000 passengers a day compared with the London Tube’s 4.8 million. But LA and KL have a history of addiction to cars that London does not have.

The LA Metro network map looks very different from the London Underground map with which we might be more familiar. The Tube covers every inch of London but the LA Metro lines shoot out in a starburst to serve more distant parts of their urban sprawl. And when the lines enter LA, they sometimes run parallel to each other. That way, it is easy to change lines and it avoids creating the congestion of a single central hub. Most LA people will probably never be coaxed out of their cars but one local recently blogged, “The LA Metro Doesn’t Suck!” So you never know.

I hate myself for doing that Malaysian thing of comparing us negatively to other places. It is just that I grew up using the Tube in London and I really want to use public transport here as well. There may have been a chance in the 1990s but now I must accept that in KL, the car is king, which is surprising because cars are so damn expensive in Malaysia. Except for some cars, but that can only be a coincidence.

I hope the MRT will be effective, user-friendly and well maintained. I look forward to using it.

Reprinted with the kind permission of