Najib on track for rail legacy

With elections likely this year, easing commuters' woes would be a way for the Malaysian PM to showcase his leadership

The MRT is a huge landmark for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The first of Mr Najib's promised mega-projects has finally seen the light of day. The Klang Valley MRT runs through highly congested and densely populated suburbs in and around Kuala Lumpur. Each MRT train can carry up to 1,200 passengers and can run
Mr Najib inspecting a train on the Klang Valley MRT line on Nov 11, 2015. The line was recently opened to the public.PHOTO: MRT CORP MALAYSIA
The first of Mr Najib's promised mega-projects has finally seen the light of day. The Klang Valley MRT runs through highly congested and densely populated suburbs in and around Kuala Lumpur. Each MRT train can carry up to 1,200 passengers and can run
The first of Mr Najib's promised mega-projects has finally seen the light of day. The Klang Valley MRT runs through highly congested and densely populated suburbs in and around Kuala Lumpur. Each MRT train can carry up to 1,200 passengers and can run at a maximum speed of 100kmh.PHOTO: MRT CORP MALAYSIA
The first of Mr Najib's promised mega-projects has finally seen the light of day. The Klang Valley MRT runs through highly congested and densely populated suburbs in and around Kuala Lumpur. Each MRT train can carry up to 1,200 passengers and can run
The first of Mr Najib's promised mega-projects has finally seen the light of day. The Klang Valley MRT runs through highly congested and densely populated suburbs in and around Kuala Lumpur. Each MRT train can carry up to 1,200 passengers and can run at a maximum speed of 100kmh.PHOTO: MRT CORP MALAYSIA

Oil and gas executive Lynn Lim used to spend up to four hours driving to her workplace in the heart of Kuala Lumpur from her home in the Subang Jaya suburb, as houses in the capital are too pricey.

But a much-delayed extension to the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system reached her doorstep in June last year, shrinking her commute time to 1½ hours.

Ms Lim, 34, now anticipates the full operation, in July, of Malaysia's first Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line that greatly expands the rail network within Greater Kuala Lumpur.

"In a year, I'll go from having no train option to being able to go to work in KL and work out at the club in Damansara," she said.

"All these years of seeing others using the LRT, I felt left out by the government. It's good to finally be part of Najib's plans."

Last week's launch of the MRT is a huge landmark for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. After nearly eight years in power, he sees the first of his many mega-projects finally up and running.

  • Existing and upcoming rail networks

  • MALAYAN RAILWAYS, OR KERETAPI TANAH MELAYU (KTM)

    • The old line joins Johor Baru and Kuala Lumpur and goes north to Perlis. Another line goes from Johor to Negeri Sembilan and into Kelantan.

    • Ridership (2015): 2 million a year

    SABAH STATE RAILWAY

    • Built by the British in the 19th century and now run by the state government, the 134km line connects the south-western interior to the capital Kota Kinabalu.

    • Ridership: 0.5 million

    KTM KOMUTER

    • Opened in 1995 for the Greater KL area, the line goes from the Thai border to just before Malacca.

    • Cost: The service was built on existing infrastructure. A total of 38 new 1,118-capacity trains were bought for RM48 million (S$15 million) each in 2012.

    •Ridership: 49.7 million

    LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT (LRT)

    • Began in 1996 as Greater KL's first dedicated rail system and expanded with a second line in 1999. Gave Malaysia its first underground stations. Further lengthened this year, with a third line to be completed by 2020.

    • Cost: The first two lines cost RM8 billion. Another RM8 billion was for the extensions that opened this year, with RM10 billion more for the third line.

    • Ridership: 145 million

    EXPRESS RAIL LINK

    • A high-speed service that started in 2002 from downtown KL transport hub, KL Sentral, to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 57km away.

    • Cost: RM2.4 billion for the initial line, with another RM100 million for the added 2.14km stretching to the KLIA2 expansion in 2014.

    • Ridership: 10 million

    MONORAIL

    • Opened in 2003 to serve central KL, it starts from the KL Sentral hub and crosses several spots in the central business district as part of its 10 other stops along an 8.6km line. The Monorail is now run by the same government operator as the LRT and MRT lines, Rapid Rail.

    • Cost: RM1.2 billion initially. A RM500 million deal to replace old two-car trains with 12 four-car sets trains is currently delayed.

    • Ridership: 25.1 million

    ELECTRIFIED DOUBLE-TRACKING OF KTM

    • Between 2010 and 2014, various sections of KTM's west coast network underwent electrification and double-tracking upgrades, allowing trains to reach speeds of up to 140kmh along the Malaysian peninsula from the Thai border to the edge of JB. The final stretch into JB is due by 2020.

    •Cost: Once the Gemas (Negeri Sembilan) to JB upgrade is completed, the bill is expected to surpass RM40 billion.

    • Ridership: 2.1 million

    MASS RAPID TRANSIT (MRT)

    • The first line that crosses the affluent Greater KL suburbs was opened this month, but will only be fully ready next year. It stretches 51km. A second 52km line that connects to Putrajaya in the south is expected to be ready in 2021. A third circle line is confirmed but details have not been finalised.

    • Cost: The first line came in at RM21 billion while the second is expected to cost up to RM40 billion.

    • Ridership: 340 million (projected)

    HIGH-SPEED RAIL

    • A 90-minute direct bullet train between KL and Singapore and a transit service with stops at major towns are set for 2026.

    • Cost: Said to be in the region of RM50 billion.

    • Ridership: 22 million (projected)

    RAPID TRANSIT SYSTEM

    • A quick shuttle service from JB via Singapore's upcoming Thomson-East Coast MRT line, with an agreement set to be inked next year.

    • Cost: Yet to be announced. A figure of over RM1 billion has been bandied about.

    • Ridership: Under study

    EAST COAST RAIL LINK

    • A 620km rail to link the Klang and Kuantan ports before heading up the east coast to Kelantan is expected to be completed in 2022.

    • Cost: Project financing of up to RM55 billion though Malaysia says it may cost less.

    • Ridership: 7.7 million (projected)

    Shannon Teoh

"It wasn't easy because nobody planned for a rail corridor in the Klang Valley," a top MRT executive told The Straits Times, referring to protests from those affected by construction works and land acquisition. "It's a huge gamble, but a necessary one."

The initial phase of the first MRT line runs through an upper middle-class segment of the increasingly congested Klang Valley - an older name for the Greater KL region, which includes the suburbs in Selangor surrounding Kuala Lumpur.

This demographic has mostly turned its back on Mr Najib's Umno-led Barisan Nasional government, which is at its weakest point since the 2013 general election.

The MRT line, which will intersect with other train systems, will be Mr Najib's only mega-project to be completed before nationwide polls - due in August next year, but generally expected this year - are called.

"It is a question of leadership," ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute deputy director Ooi Kee Beng told The Straits Times. "A national leader needs to formulate, publicise and remedy difficult problems - and of course, in many senses, these are all inherited from past administrations. So having something to show is important, but winning the trust of the public is a bigger issue."

While Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is credited with modernising Malaysia - delivering the iconic Petronas Towers, a world-class international airport and highways filled with national cars - Mr Najib is laying down the tracks of a rail legacy.

It was Dr Mahathir who oversaw the first LRT lines, the KTM Komuter inter-city network, the Express Rail Link connecting Kuala Lumpur to the Sepang airport and the KL Monorail.

But these projects were completed in the last third of his 22-year reign to solve the problem of over-reliance on road transport that was caused by the cheap national cars, Proton and Perodua, promoted by Dr Mahathir, critics say.

At the launch ceremony of the LRT network's expansion last July, Mr Najib attacked his mentor-turned-political nemesis. "One of the challenges we face is that of our transport system and this is because my predecessor, who ruled for 22 years, did not pay attention to public transport," he said.

"And because of that, we face under-investment in the sector and an unintegrated system that was owned by many parties, rendering the transport system unable to support the needs of a town and resulting in massive traffic jams."

Mr Najib launched the MRT just three days after Malaysia and Singapore inked an official agreement to build the 350km high-speed rail linking the two countries.

Although he inherited the LRT extension projects and the national railway electrification projects, these were billed to the government during his time. All told, the Najib administration is betting more than RM200 billion (S$64.5 billion) - about an entire year's fiscal revenue - on rail being the solution to Malaysia's transport woes.

Besides two of the three MRT planned lines racking up a bill of more than RM60 billion, there is the controversial East Coast Rail Link that ties the Klang Valley to the Malaysian peninsula's north-east at a projected cost of RM55 billion. Second Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani also said last July that he expected high-speed rail construction costs to reach about RM50 billion.

Adding to Mr Najib's rail portfolio may be Malaysia's shortest railway line - the rapid train system. Though details remain sketchy, it will include an extension of Singapore's upcoming Thomson-East Coast Line into Johor Baru.

But to critics, spending huge sums on infrastructure is not enough. Transport advocacy group Transit said that "the government seems to be more interested in spending money than making hard choices about transport".

"The problem is that, until recently, we have not made parallel investments in bus transport and regulatory improvements," Transit spokesman Moaz Ahmad told The Straits Times.

Having staked so much on laying tracks all over the country, Mr Najib will need to ensure the LRT and the MRT significantly improve commuting around Kuala Lumpur, as a showcase of what his leadership could bring the country.

"Umno is seen to be too much on the defensive and too concerned with staying in power to consider national economy-building in a studied and efficient manner," said Dr Ooi. "If not overcome, this dilemma will see Umno lose power sooner or later."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'Najib on track for rail legacy'. Subscribe