A tourist’s-eye view of Malaysian transport infrastructure

A recent trip to Malaysia revealed a culturally self-contained nation, whose rapidly modernising transport infrastructure is barely keeping pace with a burgeoning population and the urgent demands of climate change.

Malaysia ranks second in infrastructure investment in Asia, coming in fifth place globally in the Global Infrastructure Investment Index. This is a product of lots of huge private enterprise projects in roading and, less significantly, public transport.

The World Economic Forum has put Malaysia at 19th in its 138 country index for the overall quality of its infrastructure. It has low inflation, a stable currency and is fuelled by growing manufacturing and healthy agricultural sectors. It’s an open economy, with a trade to GDP ratio hovering around 130 per cent and privatised projects undertaking most of the heavy lifting in infrastructure.

The country is currently enacting its 11th five-year Malaysia Plan, which emphasises the importance of infrastructure in achieving Malaysia’s transformation into a fully developed nation by 2020.

It’s also got 31 million people on a small land mass, a lot of mountainous country and from 2017 stats, some 28 million car registrations, or 0.88 vehicles for every person in the country. That’s not including the ubiquitous motor scooters. In 2014 it was ranked third globally on car ownership.

There are some disruptive services, such as the South Korean car sharing platform SOCAR, working on this problem, but little evidence of success.

There were skeletons of new freeway foundations and impending train lines everywhere I travelled. This infrastructure activity is part of a massive modernisation agenda begun by the notoriously corrupt regime of ousted former leader Najib Razak and vigorously continued by incoming Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who’s claiming to have drawn a line under the excesses that characterised the Razak regime.

An example has been to curtail many of the billion dollar projects assigned to Chinese developers, who Mahathir has asserted were heavily weighting their fees. That has included a $20-billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) connecting Kuala Lumpur to Singapore – the cost per kilometre coming in at $110 million, as compared to $10m per kilometre for the cost of the Padma rail link.

The startling contrasts between some rural and less developed areas and the megalopolis of Kuala Lumpur suggest that simply moving its population has taken top priority for planners. While public transport is modern and efficient, building roads seems to take top priority and reducing congestion, carbon output and more incidental structural provisions such as recycling seem a long way down the list.

Hiring a car to drive around Kuala Lumpur is something like playing one of the arcane computer games Malaysian commuters are addicted to. KL is a bewildering matrix of interconnecting five and six-lane freeways, off-ramps and overpasses in which GPSs fail and taxi drivers are frequently reduced to guessing.

These mazes of congestion are not confined to the CBD. They extend all the way to the various converging cities’ constantly shifting boundaries and despite the ever-expanding roadworks, at peak hours they’re all reduced to carparks.

With the impending completion of Bukit Jalil City, a mammoth “integrated lifestyle” development under construction on the edge of KL, that arterial roading nightmare looks set to increase. While there are some clearly definable peaks, the predominance of single occupancy cars on the roads at all hours has created induced demand on an unprecedented scale. This will be one of the country’s biggest obstacles in navigating a reduced carbon and congestion future.

That’s not to say that public transport doesn’t also play a major role in moving Malaysia. Part of the labyrinth of transport infrastructures are elevated rail lines for the major transit carriers. There are several operated by Rapid KL, each dedicated to a different component of the city’s needs.

There’s the KLM Komuter, KLIA Ekspres to the airport and KILA Transit, which also runs to the inter-city bus depot. A fully automated Mass Rapid Transit heavy rail runs on an east west axis. The automated Light Rail Transit runs two major north-south lines while the human operated monorail revolves around 11 stops in the KL CBD. A free GO KL city bus service is optimised for tourists in KL central and the Rapid KL buses, while renowned for erratic scheduling, are ubiquitous and cheap.

They’re part of a sophisticated public transport network featuring simple and robust ticketing machines, modern efficient stations and a clear, easily navigable system. Inter city buses are frequent, cheap and fast, outgunning even the ETS rail service, which reaches 130km/h between stations. These services move a lot of people and KL Sentral station particularly is crowded day and night, but they barely make a dint in the 24/7 bustle of the city.

Freeways are well built by a PPP industry and financed by frequent, cheap tollways with several incumbent operators. One of these uses the Touch and Go card, which also doubles as a smart card for public transport. Once you leaves the freeways, rural roads are mostly well maintained, but taking back roads can lead into medieval conditions best left un-tackled by a hire car.

Unlike the lethal maelstroms of other south east Asian cities like Hanoi and Bangkok, Malaysian traffic is relatively mellow and leisurely. I saw only one accident and the protagonists seemed to regard their plight – being crippled in the midst of five lanes of unrelenting traffic, as a minor inconvenience.

Even in KL’s crazy thoroughfares – late at night it can take hours to get to outlying suburbs on constantly clogged freeways – changing lanes is a breeze and you rarely encounter any form of road rage.

As for Penang, riding scooters around the island is a pleasure, with cars keeping a respectful distance, only overtaking when it’s absolutely safe.

That said, on undulating mountain passes, I saw insane overtaking manoeuvres that could have resulted in mass casualties were it not for the sangfroid of the oncoming drivers.

Malaysia’s multi-racial, religiously diverse population is remarkably tolerant and to an outsider’s eyes, apparently happy and dignified.

Despite its vulnerability to induced demand the evidence of planned infrastructure in heavy private investment and new rail lines suggest that Malaysia’s transport infrastructure is at least likely to keep pace with its population growth for the intermediate future. Environmental sustainability is another, more complex matter.

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