The latest Edge weekly reports sources as saying that the Penang state government has given the green light to a low-profile businessman, Jeyakumar Varathan, to build and commission a RM70-million monorail test track on a 30-acre site in Batu Kawan.

The paper suggested that this could be a sign that the state is embarking on its own monorail plans and cited sources as saying that the groundbreaking for the project could be in December.

Jeyakumar’s consortium may first have to prove that its technology is viable before it can build a monorail network in Penang, the paper added.

Some questions arise:

  • How much is Jeyakumar paying for the 30-acre site in Batu Kawan?
  • Does the state government have a public transport masterplan and is a monorail part of it? First, it was the monorail and then subway, next it was the ‘aerorail’ – and now it’s back full circle to monorail?
  • What about other public transport options such as a bus rapid transit system and trams – which could be more cost effective? Have they been considered? How does Porr fit in?
  • Has the state government informed and briefed members of the Penang Transport Council? The perception is that its members are in the dark about this monorail thing. Why the secrecy?
  • Does Jeyakumar have a proven track record? Is the Penang state government aware of Jeyakumar’s attempts in South Africa? (See “Monorail king goes mum“.)

According to the US/Europe-based Institute of Transportation and Development Policy, on the very day of the bankruptcy of the Kuala Lumpur system (16 May 2006), Newcyc Vision announced a project commitment to build a 45-kilometre (28-mile) system in Johannesburg.

Read what the sustainable transport experts are saying. The same article points out that monorail systems create visual intrusions to the urban environment (how would this affect George Town’s appeal as a heritage city)? This should be enlightening reading:

South Africa

Despite the bankruptcy of the Kuala Lumpur system and the financial collapse of the Putrajaya project, the Malaysian monorail developers have attempted to develop new markets elsewhere. The most recent target has been South Africa. With South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup looming, a Malaysian consortium, known as Newcyc Vision, has targeted South African cities as a prime market.

In fact, on 16 May 2006, the very day of the bankruptcy of the Kuala Lumpur system, Newcyc Vision, announced a project commitment to build a 45-kilometre (28-mile) system in Johannesburg. The system would link Soweto directly with the central business district of Johannesburg. The estimated infrastructure cost of the system is R12 billion (US$1.7 billion), or US$38.1 million per kilometre.

While the exact financial arrangements on the Johannesburg project are unclear, it appears that the system developers will be awarded with land, property, and a ridership guarantee. As part of the deal, the consortium will be given public property in the central business district as well as along the corridor for development. Also, as is increasingly the case of many rail-based PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships), the developers will be guaranteed a minimum number of daily passengers. If that guaranteed ridership does not materialise, the South African government (i.e. South African taxpayers) will make up the difference. The costly Gautrain system, a previously approved rail system for the Johannesburg area, also provides a private consortium with rather generous ridership guarantees.

As in other cities, the Johannesburg project promoters have made some rather bold claims regarding the monorail system’s likely performance and ridership. At the initial press conferences to announce the project, the Province of Gauteng and Newcyc Vision claimed that the Johannesburg system would be able to carry 1.5 million passengers per day. Given that this amount is roughly equal to all public transport trips in the city, it was a bit difficult to believe this ridership could be achieved on a single corridor. Further, given that no monorail system is currently serving more than 5,000 passengers per peak hour per direction, increasing this by an order of magnitude in low-density South African conditions seems optimistic. However, if given ridership guarantees by the Government, then perhaps the system developers have no real concern regarding the actual performance.

The proposed monorail alignment will also largely duplicate the proposed Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project that has already been approved and is under planning in Johannesburg. The future of the Rea Vaya project may become somewhat doubtful if the monorail project proceeds.

Fortunately, the Johannesburg project announcement now appears to have been premature. Apparently, the project developers forgot to notify the Mayor of Johannesburg and the City Council, who have responsibility over public space in the city, as well as the National Minister of Transport, who holds responsibility over rail systems nationally. In an unprecedented move, the National Transport Minister Jeff Radebe was forced to make a press statement in which he noted that he had no prior knowledge to the project’s existence. The project has thus been retracted to the status of being “under review”.

Undeterred, though, by this initial setback, the Gauteng Provincial Government and Newcyc Vision have instead insisted that they will continue pursuing the project not only in Johannesburg but also other South African municipalities, including Tshwane (Pretoria) and Ekhuruleni. Hopefully, reason will prevail and the Gauteng projects will be forced to go through an open and transparent process in which there is full public financial disclosure and as well as a full comparative analysis with all other public transport options.

Conclusions

Monorail technology does hold many intriguing performance aspects as well as an image that can potentially be attractive to discretionary public transport users, and especially to car owners. While the Malaysian monorail systems have experienced financial difficulties, there is a glimmer of hope that these systems can evolve into well-performing and lower-cost services, as was originally envisioned.

However, that future is yet to arrive. To date, monorail technology has suffered from operational difficulties, negative press coverage, and a spate of bankruptcies. As technologies such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) have delivered quality services at rational costs to a long list of cities, including Bogotá, Brisbane, Curitiba, Guayaquil, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Paris, Rouen, and Seoul, monorails have achieved nowhere near the same record of implementation or performance.

It would perhaps be unfortunate if the unrealised promises of monorails deter actual public transport advancements in South Africa and elsewhere. Monorail developers dream of taking us back to the future, but the hard reality is that our world cities require quality public transport today.

Read the full article here.

A month after this article was published, the South African cabinet pulled the plug on the monorail project.

Similarly, we hope for public disclosure and transparency in the Batu Kawan land deal and the state government’s dealings with Jeyakumar and his monorail ambitions.

While other cities are going into more efficient and cost-effective modes of public transport such as bus rapid transit, we are still dreaming about monorail.

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