Saturday, 14 June 2014

Little innovations in KL's Rail Network

Most people have the impression that Singapore is ahead of Malaysia in every aspect of life. That may be true 10 years ago, but Kuala Lumpur's (KL) transformation has placed its rail transport system ahead of Singapore's. Granted, it may not be as technologically sophisticated or aesthetically pretentious as Singapore's, but my experience there shows that some customer-oriented initiatives can succeed over mere money and technology.

Before I begin, let me clarify a few things. The main KL Subway system is operated by RapidKL. However, there is also a seperate commuter rail system leading to suburban towns operated by KTM. In this post, I shall focus more on the RapidKL system (though some references to KTM Kommuter will also be made).

1) Single ticket purchases

The RapidKL's Kelana Jaya and Ampang/Sri Petaling lines have a far larger number of ticketing machines than Singapore's, despite operating smaller trains. This means there are very limited queues for tickets even at very busy stations (like KLCC which I visited). In Singapore, a station meant to accommodate about 20,000 per hour may only have 4-5 ticketing machines, and for a tourist-heavy station like harbourfront, the queues can be quite a nightmare.

Another benefit of the KL system is that all single tickets are returned by inserting into the gantry at the exit, meaning there is no second queue at the ticketing machine to receive the $1 deposit. The usage of ticket tokens instead of cards on some lines is quite an interesting concept, and I think it has both advantages (more handy) and disadvantages (easier to lose).

2) Smart lift positioning

Singapore's public transport prides itself on being universally accessible, and the key to this system is a comprehensive system of elevators. Although Malaysia's lifts are nowhere as dense as Singapore's (in fact, KL monorail do not have lifts at many stations), they are much more well located.

For one, Singapore's MRT lifts are usually located at the middle of the station. This means it is tempting for physically able persons to also clamber to use the lifts. In Malaysia, though, the lifts are usually located towards the back or side where fewer passengers walk towards. This means that non-physically challenged passengers will be more inclined to take the stairs/escalators and leave the lifts for the people who actually need it more. It also ensures less congestion at the lift landing areas.

I often see handicap users in Singapore wait 2-3 rounds at the lift just to allow others (who can easily climb stairs) take the lift before them.
Reserved seats are just 1 of many features that show KL's system is just as Universally Accessible as that of Singapore's

3) Train arrival intervals (except KTM Kommuter)

When will Singapore's trains operate in 120 second intervals? Well, perhaps in the worst of the worst period of peak hours only. However, the Kelana Jaya Line operates trains at 90 second intervals even during peak-shoulder periods (When I took the train it was about 4pm and 9pm respectively). I remembered being absolutely shocked when I saw 1 train arrive at KL Sentral just seconds after the previous arrived. Because of the short intervals, trains are filled to a comfortable level (perhaps 1 person every 2 sqm standing and about 80% seats filled).

KL Monorail operates at 120 seconds (peak), 180 seconds (shoulder) and 300 seconds (off-peak) intervals, which is slightly better than Singapore's. However, the trains here are quite small (plans to extend to 4 carriages are repeatedly delayed), so crowding level is still similar to that of Singapore's MRT.

As a contrast, Singapore's North South and East West lines operate at 120 seconds (peak), 240 seconds (shoulder) and 300 seconds (off peak). North East and Circle Line is worse, at 150 seconds (peak), 240 seconds (shoulder) and 360 seconds (off peak). What is even more scary is that train crowding in Singapore can extend well past peak hours (10pm trains average almost 2-3 people per sqm standing and 100% seats filled, or 4 times more crowded than KL's at similar hours)

I saw this and I thought I missed the train, but I went up to the platform and the next one is already pulling into the station.

4) Fewer passenger distractions and better signage

All RapidKL Lines has dedicated display panels to show train arrival times. That means no distractions like commercials and safety videos. Also, the panels have font sizes that are significantly larger than Singapore's and clear red LED lights so they are very easy to read from a distance. If you try reading the tiny font on Singapore's North East and Circle Line display screens from the end of the platform, you will know what I mean.

Even announcements in KL trains are much more succinct and to the point. Singapore's trains like to add in additional announcements like "please do not lean against the door" which only distracts passengers from the real information they need. Come on, we are not kids and don't need special announcements to remind us to "mind the gap".

5) More elevated stations

Make no mistake. This difference really makes a train ride that much more scenic, enjoyable and less claustrophobic. The only underground section of Kelana Jaya Line is in the city center. Everywhere else and on every other line (Monorail, Sri Petaling and Ampang line), trains are at grade or elevated. This means there is a flood of natural light into all of the trains, creating a warm, cosy environment even when the trains are moderately crowded. 

Elevated/At grade trains like the ones in KL are also less noisy than their underground counterparts, and can do a lot to reduce the stress level of travelling passengers. One can argue that Singapore does not have the land to build elevated trains, but I think it is only a matter of whether to place the tracks above or below Singapore's extensive network of roads (think Sengkang LRT). For transport operators, it also cost about 30% less to operate and 60% less to build an elevated rail than an underground one.

6) Much cheaper fares

Finally, in spite of having better train arrival frequencies, less advertising distractions, better ticketing procedures more passenger oriented displays, RapidKL's single trip fares are still about 70% cheaper than single trip fares in Singapore. For example, a 5 station, 4 km trip from KL Sentral to KLCC costs RM1.60 per person, or SGD0.63. A similar distance trip from Harbourfront to Chinatown will set you back almost SGD1.50, not to mention the extra hassle of the $1 deposit. In fact, a single trip in KL is still about 40% cheaper than a Ez-Link card fare in Singapore.

Of course, the KL system is not without its drawbacks, among which is the lack of direct transfers between the RapidKL system and KTM Kommuter system. Also, while most lines are wheelchair accessible, the KL Monorail stations are still woefully lacking in lifts. Finally, the KTM Kommuter (not part of the main subway, but still connect to KL) operates trains at an insane 30min intervals during the most off-peak hours. 

Another feature is the ladies only compartment of KTM Kommuter, though I am not exactly sure if it is a benefit or drawback (I imagine that during crowded periods the ladies compartment will be quite empty yet the women in the other compartments will have difficulty moving to the ladies area). During non-crowded periods, it definitely is a plus point for extra privacy (though I prefer if they put the ladies car at one end instead of the middle. It is quite embarrassing to charge across the ladies area when I need to move from 1 side of the train to the other.)

Nonetheless, the fact that there are millions of passengers willing (and not forced by COE) to take public transport testifies to the success of the KL network. For me as a tourist, I think the best part of the KL network is the usage of a single transfer node KL Sentral (which makes navigation a breeze), and the clear announcements and signs. I think locals will really appreciate the low cost and more customer oriented design of the KL system.

Please do post on the comments on other transport systems that you have experienced, and perhaps compare them with the experience I had in KL and Singapore.