Guest writer German urban planning expert Alex Koenig shares with us his views about the transport challenges facing Penang.
At present Penang is experiencing traffic jams only during school holidays. Soon this will become a daily affair – especially if more housing areas get developed or if a road tunnel is constructed to link up with Butterworth/Seberang Perai.
Road tunnelling in urban areas also will result in a five to eight year period during which streets are dug up for relocating cables, pipes, etc. and massive flyovers at interchange points will be constructed. More car parking facilities will be added, further eating into open spaces that once were used by pedestrians and children playing.
Experience all over the world has proven that private car traffic in conurbations above one million inhabitants – such as Penang – never can cope with the demand for passenger trips. Lately, Bangkok and KL had to learn the lesson – that their endemic traffic jams can be only reduced by rail-bound public transport. Neither adding more buses into the jam nor constructing another layer of elevated freeways can replace rail-bound public transport; they only will delay the final collapse.
Singapore had planned their MRT system already in 1960 (by the way, the Public Works Director in the 1980s was the son of the traffic controller of Penang Airport).
While Penang Islanders are dreaming of airports and road tunnels, an even bigger impact on their traffic system is about to happen: the age of fast long-distance train travel will reach Butterworth railway station in a couple of months. Japan was the first country after World War II to operate the Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’, followed by France (TGV), Germany (ICE) and now Italy, Spain, Taiwan, Russia, Korea, China and…
Already, in the 1990s, a Malaysian Ministry of Transport delegation had studied the German ICE-system. With a decade-long delay, now the fast-speed-line is constructed beyond Taiping and already in operation between KL and Ipoh.
Soon inter-city trains will run hourly between Butterworth and KL centre at a speed of 160 km/h, covering the distance in less than three hours – much shorter than a flight or car ride, and much cheaper too.
Then less attention will be given to Penang airport, as well as the second bridge. However what will happen to Island-passengers, arriving in Butterworth in style and comfort? Old taxis awaiting them, offering an hour-long ride to the Island for RM50. Alternatively, there is a way across a maze of car-waiting areas, ramps and stairs to a rusty ferry waiting platform.
Well, to sum it up: the Island requires a fast rail link to the main line sooner or later. Rail and road can only run together on bridges, however not in tunnels.
At last year’s “INNOTRANS – International Trade Fair for Transport Technology” in Berlin a train system on exhibition is designed to operate like an LRT-tram in urban areas as well as a commuter train in the region (like in the photos right and below in Loire valley, France).
It should not happen, that Seberang Perai constructs an MRT-system, KTM operates Komuter and Inter-City trains, while on the Island only trams will operate.
Certainly, trams can serve well the Island and a modern ferry link can well serve as connection to the mainland – for the next 20 years. However there is also a future beyond the mid-term, and whatever it will be, it should be designed right now as an integrated system with eventually common tickets and coordinated timetables and operated by not more than two companies.
(Actually, I was expecting a Penang delegation at the INNOTRANS Fair.)