So much potential for train travel

I like travelling by rail. I think it’s cool, pretty relaxing and less claustrophobic than by air.

A train is designed with more space and better facilities too. An aircraft has limited space, and is not cost efficient to reconfigure.

I remember attending a friend’s birthday party in the dining carriage of a South African Railway train, while travelling from Johannesburg to Durban, a distance of 576km.

It was an overnight journey that came with sleeping berths. You could walk back to your bed after the party was over and still manage to put in several hours of sleep before arriving in Durban.
In such a case, speed was not an important criteria but arrival time at the destination was.

There is no train service between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, but it does not mean there is no market for it.

The key to such a service is having comfortable sleeping berths and quality F&B on board.

Existing intercity services show how the comfort in a passenger cabin has improved but F&B services have somehow declined considerably.

Current rail share of the Malaysian travel market has not only shrunk to a low level, but trains now serve only a small segment of the total passenger and freight markets.

Many travellers do not regard trains as the first choice for mode of travel. If you’re travelling between Penang and KL, you are very likely to take a flight either from KLIA or Subang, even though the airfare is much higher than train fare. Time, is obviously, a critical factor.

The next popular choice is road transport. This is despite heavy traffic and regular congestion on the North-South Expressway. When an entire family is involved, road is the preferred mode of travel.

Some also prefer express bus over rail. It is comparatively cheaper even though it is not very safe due to the high rate of road accidents.

Rail travel therefore sits uncomfortably at the bottom of this travel pattern and is the least preferred mode.

Why is it so? In countries such as France, Germany, the UK, Japan, South Korea and China, rail travel is the preferred choice of transport.

Studies have found that high-speed trains can compete effectively against airlines for intercity movements. But as neither train nor airlines provide direct door-to-door services like private cars, some form of first-mile-last-mile arrangements need to be strategised.

Emirates, for instance, is known for providing chauffeur driven cars to pick up First Class and Business Class passengers from their homes or offices.

Would it be possible for train operators to provide similar types of services for higher class passengers travelling by train?

Malayan Railway, rebranded as KTMB some years ago, has not been successful in attracting more passengers. There are no clear incentives to leave the highway and switch to rail.

Even though using private cars is not cost effective due to toll charges and longer travel time, it is more convenient as it can provide door-to-door connectivity. This is something that rail and air travel cannot match.

Worse, the freight traffic that criss crosses the country in big volumes and tonnage, also tends to not utilise rail. In spite of an increase in rail capacity through double tracking – trains can go up and down the track with complete ease now, without having to wait at sidings when it was operating on a single track – freight transportation by rail has continued to remain very low and has failed to compete effectively against the highways.

Is there really any concerted effort to attract more freight traffic to use the rail? At the moment it doesn’t look like it.

Apart from commuter train services, intercity services should be the main target market for KTMB. But a closer look at the train timetables show that departure times are far apart.

For instance, there are only two trains daily between Gemas and KL via Seremban, one at 8.05am and the other at 3.13pm.

Between KL and Butterworth, there are only five trains daily. This is a lot less than airline departures for the same inter-city pairing, KL-Penang.

KTMB’s main station is KL Sentral. Here, there are also other rail services such as ERL, MRT, LRT and Monorail. Each service operates independently of each other, and a common ticket to complete the journey and connections has yet to be introduced.

Easy access and passenger transfer between these services remain unsatisfactory.

The idea of reducing walking distance between each supporting station has not been implemented even at a major transport hub as KL Sentral.

Passengers with luggage find it difficult to access and connect to each of the stations and available services, even when they are actually housed under the same roof.

There is a dire need to look at service integration and provide the necessary physical connectivity in order to smoothen the flow and transfer of passengers.

In view of the impending construction of the new lines to the East Coast, the ECRL, KTMB’s network will in future become more crucial in providing the much needed capacity and connectivity.

For instance, there is a plan to link ECRL to the existing ERL (KLIA) lines, both of which are designed with the same standard gauge, as opposed to KTMB’s metre gauge lines. As such, future passengers travelling on ECRL will be able to access KLIA directly without having to transfer to another train.

Apart from cost saving, ERL will have a bigger role to play in terms of capacity and connectivity.

Meanwhile, ECRL will run past KTMB’s line somewhere in Bangi or Kajang, before it continues to Port Klang. But it is important to recognise that they need to be integrated in terms of access and connectivity so that seamless journeys can be performed by passengers of both services.

It must be pointed out that for freight trains coming from the south of KL, all of them will have no choice but to go through KL Sentral.

Similarly, freight trains coming from Port Klang will also need to go through KL Sentral when travelling northwards.

KL Sentral ends up becoming the most overused line in the entire network in KTMB. As such, congestion and delays become imminent. There will be a bottleneck for all the movements between north and south.

A bypass line, therefore, needs to be considered in order to facilitate the movements of freight traffic between north and south.

Clearly, there are many areas to improve in rail services in order to make it the best in the region.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.