It was recently reported that a northern alignment of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project would be much better than a southern link.
Apparently, the northern alignment would carry five million passengers and 26 million tonnes of cargo in its first year of operation. These are very impressive traffic figures.
If it is true, then the ECRL, with a single-line train operation, with only several passing loops in between a single straight line track, would outdo and outperform Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTMB) immediately upon its completion and first year of operation.
KTMB, in comparison, also started as a single-track railway and has been transformed into a double-tracked railway for many years now.
For the purpose of this illustration, it is referred to as the west coast railway line because it mainly serves the west coast states of Peninsular Malaysia.
The west coast railway line runs from Padang Besar railway station close to the Malaysian-Thai border in Perlis (where it connects with the State Railway of Thailand) and all the way to the south, to Woodlands checkpoint in Singapore.
The total population in all the states in which KTMB operates – Perlis all the way to Johor – is about 20 million.
The 1,151km KTMB west coast line is longer than ECRL’s 665km.
Once operational, the new ECRL is not expected to be as busy, though. Mainly because the west coast KTMB handles a variety of passenger train services such as the KTM ETS services, the KTM Intercity services, the International Express, the KTM Komuter in the Klang Valley and Northern Region, centred at Butterworth, and a variety of freight trains.
About 759km of the west coast network is double-tracked and electrified whereas ECRL is a single-line, electrified railway.
There are obvious limitations with a single-line railway notably speed, frequency and possible complications in the signalisation systems, especially at the passing loops.
Why we are building a single-track railway in this day and age is another issue which can be debated upon later.
The figures presented below show a rather straightforward comparison between our two railways and is a simplified perspective between what has been achieved by KTMB over the years, relative to the expectations of ECRL’s future performance.
Figure 1: Comparative analysis of the capacity of the two railway systems
1, 151km Narrow (1m or 3ft 3 3/8 in) (759 km) Double
665km Standard (1.435m or 4ft 8 ½ in) Single-track with passing loops
|2.Population along the alignment
Operates in a well-established market of about 20 million people
Will operate in a partially developing market of about 11 million people
|3.Passengers carried or forecast
|4. Combined cargo tonnage at ports in west coast against east coast
|Operates in a market that has generated 285 mil tonnes of cargo in 2020 (Johor, Klang and Penang ports combined)
|Will operate in a market that has generated 22 mil tonnes of cargo in 2020 (Kuantan and Kemaman ports combined)
|5. Cargo carried or forecast
|Captured only 6 mil tonnes
|Forecast capture: 26 mil tonnes
Source: Transport ministry’s yearbook, 2018 & Statistics Department, 2020 and other research.
Inflated passenger & cargo figures
The latest statistics show that KTMB, with a more extensive dual-tracked network, operating between many urban centres along the west coast, in areas with higher population density, only managed to attract 3.5 million passengers in 2018, possibly about four million per year once travel restrictions are lifted.
Now, when compared to ECRL states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and Selangor, the combined population is about 11.415 million people.
The east coast states are not as industrialised as the west coast. The three major towns of Kota Bharu, Kuala Terengganu and Kuantan are relatively small in terms of urban areas and population density.
Looking at Figure 1, it is rather inconceivable that a mostly rural region with a market base of slightly more than 11 million people, with much lower per capita income, would generate more travel demand than the west coast region.
The forecast of five million passengers mentioned in the report is simply too high by any measure.
Based on the west coast example, the travel demand market would likely not be dominated by rail alone, given that there are other better and faster competing modes such as highways and low cost air transport.
Equally puzzling is the figure quoted for cargo traffic.
There are many industries located along the west coast and these are reflected by the many industrial parks and at least, five major ports. These are; Pasir Gudang, Tanjung Pelepas, Westport, Northport and Penang, all of which are linked by KTMB rail lines for freight transportation.
In 2020, these five ports generated a total of 285 million tonnes of cargo. Out of these volume, KTMB managed to capture only about 6 million tonnes.
It has been claimed that in the first year of operation, ECRL, a single-line railway, will capture 26 million tonnes of cargo traffic, which is way beyond what KTMB is handling at the moment. It would be interesting to see the details of the forecast.
Perhaps, this is something that the transport ministry or the related authority wishes to share with many transport operators that are facing cargo shortage and challenging operations during this pandemic.
It is amazing that a single-line ECRL could outdo KTMB by carrying 42% more passengers and that it would also move more freight or cargo loads, almost five times more than KTMB, which has been in operation for half a century.
Now, where did KTMB go wrong? Or did ECRL get its forecasts wrong?
It can be implied through the news reports that KTMB, despite its established network and long-standing services, only managed to capture about six million tonnes of cargo from a total of 285 million tonnes generated by the five west coast ports.
A negligible representation of only 2.1% of the total cargo throughput.
But ECRL, despite being a single-track railway, would be able to capture about 26 million tonnes or five times more, in their first year of operation alone. That would be a truly amazing achievement.
Now, that being the case, shouldn’t someone responsible take KTMB to task, for all its failings, low achievement and poor performance?
Capturing a cargo base of only 2.1% is shameful, despite having a dual-tracked system, as opposed to almost 10% (by ECRL, a single-track railway). A definite F on the part of KTMB.
Or rather, who actually fails their statistics test here?
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.