Milan and Penang: Trams vs Monorail/PORR/PGCC


Monorail Penang routeGreetings from Milan! I am here presenting a paper at a conference.

Walking around the city, I must say I have been impressed with Milan’s excellent network of underground trains, trams (old and modern), buses and taxies – though locals tell me there is still room for improvement.

But first, what’s this? Someone alerted me to a Penang monorail route map posted on Wikipedia. I am not sure who posted that entry:

“The Penang Monorail is a future monorail line to be constructed under the Ninth Malaysia Plan and Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER). It will be located on Penang Island. Two lines will be built, with possible extensions to Province Wellesley in the future. The 37km system is expected to cost RM 1.1 billion.

“The names of all the stations on the monorail are still mostly unknown, although the main stops are confirmed. The Red Line will run between Tanjung Tokong and the Penang International Airport via Scotland Road, Jalan Air Itam and the Penang State Mosque. The Green Line will run between Paya Terubong and Weld Quay Terminal, via Jalan Air Itam, Jalan Dato’ Keramat, and Komtar. The interchange will be situated at Jalan Air Itam.”

Before we plunge into an expensive monorail system, take a look at Milan’s trams:

Milan old tram


For good reason, Milan has not opted for a monorail system and instead preferred trams. This heritage city and financial/fashion capital has 21 tramlines totalling close to 300km – apart from its Metro (underground train network) and buses. And no monorail. You could say, Milan knows a thing or two about style and elegance to match the historical city’s backdrop.

At the conference, I bumped into Angiolo Rosselli, a transport policy maker and consulting engineer, who told me he is going to be the next mayor of Milan.

I asked him for the pros and cons of a monorail system as opposed to a tram network.

He told me trams were cheaper to set up. On the other hand, he said a monorail might be cheaper to run as the trains need not have drivers, and carriages can be easily added on if passenger traffic rose. Some modern cities might actually prefer a monorail system.

I asked him what he would recommend for Penang. He said for heritage cities like Milan (and Penang), a tram network would be preferable as it would be at street level and blend in with the old buildings rather than having an overhead rail system marring the built heritage environment. (Milan’s streets are not much wider than George Town’s and the tram railtracks and stops are usually in the centre of the road.)

In Milan, passengers buy tickets before boarding the buses or trams at street level. The tickets are available at news vendors and shops. The drivers don’t bother looking at the tickets when passengers board. Instead, the passengers are supposed to “validate” their tickets by inserting them inside machines placed inside the buses/trams. Drivers are thus not burdened with ticket sales and this saves them a lot of time and hassle. Ticket inspectors randomly enter the buses/trams to check if passengers have proper validated tickets. Anyone not having a validated ticket is fined 36 euros (about RM170). It seems the inspections are rare – and the fine serves more as a deterrent.

A tram system need not be an antiquainted mode of transport. Take a look at Milan’s modern Eurotrams, which run alongside older models from the 19th century onwards. This combination of old and new trams makes the city a fascinating living public transport museum!

milan new tram


Rosselli wants to go even further. He wants to phase out private cars from Milan roads – by 2011, I think – perhaps looking to London’s Ken Livingstone for some inspiration. Brave man, trying to do this in the land of Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari!

For a start, he is talking about introducing a pollution charge imposed on older, less fuel-efficient vehicles. This would be based on the principle of “you pollute, you pay”.

I asked him what would happen to those with older cars who cannot afford to pay such a pollution charge.

He replied, too bad, they would have to use public transport. (That shows how important it is to have a good public transport system in place first.)

The next step, he says, would be to phase out vehicles that use diesel because he says diesel-powered vehicles are more polluting.

Finally, all private cars will be phased out from the city.

That set me thinking. Penang is going in the opposite direction! Instead of phasing out cars, we are putting in the infrastructure that will permanently ensure an ever-increasing number of private vehicles in the city. Think of the Penang Outer Ring Road, the second Penang Bridge, and even the thousands of additional (polluting) vehicle movements and all the road widening/flyover construction for the supposedly “Karbon 0” (what a joke!) Penang Global City Centre project.

If only we had visionary, environmentally conscious, far-sighted leaders with the political will to make tough decisons for the common good. If only…

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Alex Koenig

Dear Tim, There are a few points to consider: “reintroduction” of trams can not mean the old type on street level transport. LRT-trains can function as on-street trams (in suburbs, but, of course on their own Right-of-Way), or as elevated “sky train” (as in Bangkok), or as underground trains – if the streets in the urban areas are too narrow. Buses are not considered as adequate public transport in conurbations above 1 million, especially, if they run on the same congested streets as private cars. That does not work. The worst solution of all is a Monorail system. With the… Read more »

Clarence Shubert

Why not consider a dual mode system to facilitate the use of electric vehicles which are the wave of the future. Electric guideways for electric busses, cars and bikes from Georgetown to the airport and across Penang bridge. They could then operate independently within town and to outlying areas.


Many an expert have proposed the reintroduction of trams in George Town. However, they base their argument on research done in non-tropical climate. So far, there isn’t a large city in a tropical climate that has implemented the use of trams and for good reason. Apart from the views already pointed out, (that our streets are too narrow, and that the implementation of trams will only aggravate the gridlock), the sheet number of motorcyclists on the road make the presence of trams hazardous. As for the speed of the tram, if it is made to run slowly, it will create… Read more »

jon ar

so, what is about to happen now that the new gov of penang takes over? hopefully the project be scrapped. i dont think penang needs a monorail system for now, trams and buses are cheaper to built and maintain, not to mention what monorails will do to the older parts of penang…eyesore?…but if it were an underground system it will be better served, penang was said to be the city that has the most concentrated vernacular shophouses in one city…almost 80 percent, if im not mistaken (sorry, i dont have the source, but i think if u walk through georgetown… Read more »

Moaz Yusuf Ahmad

Another good (no, great!) thing about tram technology is the vast number of options that are available. Currently there are mroe than 20 companies in the world offering various types of trams of various sizes. These companies are located in North America, Europe and Asia. More competition through open tenders will give us the best options and the lowest prices. Compare this to the 3 manufacturers of monorail lines (Hitachi, Bombardier and Scomi), or the single manufacturer of the Kelana Jaya LRT (Bombardier). Not only are trams cheaper to construct and operate, we can have competition as well as lower… Read more »

Sean E

Actually, a combination of monorail and tram would be ideal for Penang. Monorail to serve the outlying areas and tram to serve the city. Tram are at ground level and required no expensive pylons. The tram routes will carry the people to most corners of George Town. The monorail will deliver the people to a few interchange in the city, from which they will take the trams to their final destinations. At the sub-urban monorail stations, there will be ample multi storey car park for the people to park their cars and then ride the monorail to the city. The… Read more »


Monorail and Trams both are good idea and should be implemented. Trams can implemented in the city center like Komtar/Explanate/Pulau Tikus/etc for short distance. Monorail will connect a longer distance like T.Bungah/Int Air-Port/FTZ/P.Terubong etc.

K.C.Heah   (KC)

Coming to think of it I would agree to the setting up of this system versus what you now see in George Town. The cars can then be barred from the city which have to be demarcated. People can board the trams on a single ticket system and hopping on an off as they wishes whether on a straight line or at inter-sections. When this is to operate there must be setting up of multi-storey car parks to accomodate the vehicles coming in. One other thing which is important is the logistics for the movement of goods in and out… Read more »


I disagree with the statement made my EoP.The main reason is that Penang used to have not just Trams, but also Trolley Buses which proved to be reliable whereas we DUMP it, other places still using it esp in Europe and with the factor of pollution, diesel cost and heritage value, i think now is the correct time to go back to pollution free transport.If people mention about traffic gridlock…how about hongkong? may be we can learn from them on how did they manage the situation.From what that i can see as long as we can do the enforcement correctly… Read more »

Eye on Penang

Yes, Anil, I know that, but there were very few cars back then.
Trams are an excellent means of public transport, they work well in many European cities, and also in Melbourne Australia, but in my opinion they will be unsuitable for present day Penang. The narrow congested roads will hamper the trams progress and during the laying of the track rails there will be a gridlock.
Whatever is built, the main thing is that it is efficient, cheap and serves the people of Penang who need it most.


To answer Pigeon, I had read about the monorail but never saw a route map until now. As for Eye on Penang, Penang had for many years run a successful tram system – and the streets were a lot narrower back then. So there is no reason why trams can’t be brought back.

Eye on Penang

Trams will not work, the streets in Penang are too narrow.
A monorail is the better option, however the question is,
‘Will Penang get the best routes to serve the citizens, the most efficient and practical service, universal accessibility and a well bult, well maintained and professionally operated monorail system?
The answer will most likely be NO, what you will get is a half-hearted but very expensive monorail system, which is designed and built solely to enrich the cronies who are given the contract on a plate!
Malaysia Truly Corrupted


You didn’t know there was a proposed monorail in Penang until now?


trams are excellent, much better than monorail. Amsterdam also is an example of an old city using tram instead of monorail, where amsterdam even has a lane and traffic light for cyclists! Shos how much their government loves their public and public properties! Some parts of england uses trams. Ancient athens, uses underground system and buses with electric cables (??) so they dont destroy their world famous monuments, as london. But, I prefer trams!

jeffrey chew

Interesting !


well few months ago ric francis, the tram expert was in penang to give a talk on possibility of starting trams in penang. i wonder will the penang government take into consideration his proposal.

OT talk here: anil, i sent you an email but no reply. will you be back by this saturday? we hope you can attend the bangsa malaysia night in penang.

Eye on Penang

In Penang it is quite likely you will get a ‘Monofail’, and not an effective fully accessible, universally designed monorail transport system. The reason for this is simple, the project will be awarded to a crony company, using political and personal criteria. Thus the end result will be totally unsatisfactory and be overpriced as well. If an open and transparent tendering system was used then the project would be awarded to a competent company who would design and built a monorail system which serviced the local population centres, was efficient, fully accessible and cost effective. Sadly, the politicians will look… Read more »

ahmad chik

Dear Anil,

Good account of how an old city can adapt to the needs of the modern world. Perhaps you can give a talk on this when you come home. In the meanwhile enjoy yourself.