No real surprises with the ‘new’ Penang Hill Railway design. In the first place, was the project with new tracks to bypass the Middle Station really necessary?
And I hear that the hump in the tracks near the Middle Station may even cause stress to the pulleys in certain sections. What do you think of this Insider report?
Bad design, poor upkeep behind Penang Hill rail breakdowns
GEORGE TOWN, Jan 7 ― A design flaw coupled with poor maintenance are the main culprits plaguing Penang Hill’s sole railway despite its RM73 million makeover two years ago, said engineers who had worked on the system.Despite being fitted with a new and faster electrical system allowing the funicular train to travel up and down on a single track in 10 minutes, the hill railway service is frequently disrupted by serious breakdowns, which earned it a slapdown in the Auditor-General’s 2011 Report published last year.
“The new track could do with a lot of improvements to prevent frequent breakdowns,” an engineer from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport Australia (CILTA) told The Malaysian Insider in an email interview.
The engineer, who asked not to be named as he used to work as a consultant for the hill railway, explained that a “hump” located on the sloping track near the middle station was the reason the electrical contacts tended to wear out frequently.
He highlighted that the hump also caused the cable to “jump”, which contributed to the train breaking down.
In order to prevent the cable from being dislodged from its alignment, the electrical pick-up must be modified and its pulley corrected, he said, adding that the old double-track rail system should have been kept and then upgraded instead of shifting to the new single-track system.
“Now, they will need to check on the electric contacts regularly and replace it to prevent it from wearing out because of the design fault.
“They need to look at the 1923 track designs again and modify the new track according to the former design,” said the Australian who has visited the railway twice since the completion of the overhaul in 2011.
Another engineer who used to work in the Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) and had overseen the railway operations agreed the hump was a problem.
“But his claims can only be proven through various tests on the track so I would not entirely say that is the problem,” the Penang-born engineer said, referring to the Australian’s views.
The former engineer, a Penang-born, attributed the biggest cause of the breakdowns to the poor standard of the railway’s maintenance.
“They have scheduled maintenance and I am not saying that they don’t do maintenance work, but it is the standard of maintenance that is not as good as it should be,” said the man who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of legal suits.
The pensioner said the railway system needed skilled and dedicated people to ensure the maintenance was carried out properly, adding that those working at PHC lacked the qualities and tended to “sweep everything under the carpet”.
The two men’s remarks appear to corroborate the Auditor-General’s views on the state-owned hill railway operator.
The 2011 report noted weaknesses in the train operations after PHC took over its management, which may affect passenger safety.
The Auditor-General also reported that PHC should ensure the officers responsible for operations were given proper training and experience.
Tan Sri Ambrin Buang had in his report also recommended the Tourism Ministry and Public Works Department (PWD) act against PHC for its failure to carry out the scheduled maintenance of train operations, the New Straits Times reported on October 17 last year.
The hill railway has been afflicted by numerous “technical glitches” in the past two years, the most recent being two breakdowns last November just two weeks apart.
In the corporation’s defence, PHC general manager Maklen Ali was reported saying the PWD had handed to it the operations manual 11 days before the government audit on the railway was carried out in July 2011.
He denied poor maintenance was the cause of the breakdowns in a press conference last year following the disruptions in November, insisting PHC conducted regular checks on the railway and that the service outages were due to unforeseen technical glitches.
PHC, on its website, announced that the railway service will be closed from today until January 13 for an annual inspection by manufacturers of the coaches and tracks, Garaventa and SISAG respectively.
It is not the first time the hill railway service had to be shut down for several days, Maklen said, adding the same had happened in January last year for a week.
“It is not unusual as the manufacturers need time to do the inspection and we did the same last year,” he said.
The Penang Hill Railway has been mired in controversy since 2010, when the Tourism Ministry undertook to replace the 89-year-old funicular rail system that took 30 minutes one way from the foot of the hill in Air Itam to the peak.
The old dual-track system, designed and built in 1923, split the passenger load into two halves. Passengers would take a coach from the lower station to a middle station halfway up the hill where they were required to disembark and board another coach that would haul them on a separate cable and track to the upper station on the hilltop.
It used to take around 30 minutes for a journey up the hill on the old railway system but the new system, with air conditioned coaches, now takes only about 10 minutes.
The old railway was closed in 2010 and the new railway system was opened to public in April 2011.
The operations of the railway were handed over to PHC, a company formed by state government to oversee the project, after its completion.