Better, Cheaper, Faster – Really?


The Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is the state government’s biggest infrastructural undertaking in recent history. The state first launched a feasibility study – commonly known as the Halcrow study1 – and later through an open bidding system as evaluated and recommended by the independent advisory KPMG, appointed SRS Consortium (SRS) as the Project Delivery Partner of the PTMP.

Partially based on Halcrow’s findings, SRS proposes to build an elevated Light-Rail Transit (LRT) from Permatang Damar Laut to Komtar, connecting important places such as the airport, Free Industrial Zone, Sungai Nibong Bus Express Terminal, Subterranean Penang International Convention & Exhibition Centre (SPICE), Universiti Sains Malaysia and George Town. There will be 19 stations along the 22km line to serve the heavy traffic corridor on the eastern part of the island, with the estimated construction cost of RM220mil per km and operating cost of RM170mil for the first year.2

The LRT’s capacity of 18,500 passengers per hour per direction (PPHPD) is aimed at increasing public transport usage to 40% from the current 3.2%, and achieving 116,000 daily ridership by 2023 based on the anticipated demand fueled by significant increases in investments and by population growth.3

To emphasise, ridership cannot be simply inferred from population, e.g. a young salesman who uses public transport six times a day is counted as one person in the population pool but he contributes to six riderships per day.

The SRS’s proposal has drawn much criticism, especially from a group of non-governmental organisations called the Penang Forum that tabled their own proposal, called Better, Cheaper, Faster: Penang Transport Master Plan (BCF) in July. The 61-page document raises objections, among others, over the ridership projection and cost of SRS’s proposal; and demands a tram system based on the earlier proposal submitted by Halcrow in place of the LRT.

Ridership Projection


The anticipated ridership is projected through a very complex interplay between demographic, logistic, policy and economic development. It is therefore a distortion for BCF to object against the projected ridership based largely on population estimation. Nonetheless, for argument's sake, we shall look at BCF's objection to highlight its underlying problems.

Halcrow had estimated that Penang’s population would reach 2.45 million by 2030. This figure was used by SRS.4

BCF contends against this projection based on two other sets of data: the preliminary figures calculated by the Department of Statistics (DoS) in 2010 from the Population And Housing Census of Malaysia in 2010; and the net migration figure of 1,300 (immigrants minus emigrants) in 2014. “SRS projects a Penang state population of 2.45 million people by 2030 while the Malaysian Statistics Department projects 1.94 million by 2040. [SRS’s projected figure] is highly unrealistic, given in 2013 net migration was only 1,300,” it says.5

However, BCF’s objection against the Halcrow-SRS’s population projection is flawed because the two sets of data are inconclusive. The preliminary figures from the DoS are an underestimation; the actual population and latest estimation calculated by the DoS is higher than its projection in 2010.6

Table 1 is a comparison between the preliminary figures projected in 2010 and actual data. As can be seen, the preliminary figure is underestimated every year from 2012 to 2015, from 20,000 to 40,000 people. BCF’s critique is based on underestimated data and therefore lacks credibility.

The net migration of 1,300 in 2014 is an oddity as the average number is actually 9,372 per annum between 1992 and 2013.7 Real estate advisor Savills World Research in its 2015 Asian Cities Report estimated an average of 10,000 net migration per annum since 2000.8 The Penang Structure Plan (PSP) 2020 has forecasted the population will reach two million by 2020.9 BCF’s objection to SRS’s ridership projection is not only distorted but also based on inconclusive and odd data sampling.

To emphasise, ridership cannot be simply inferred from population, e.g. a young salesman who uses public transport six times a day is counted as one person in the population pool but he contributes to six riderships per day.

Furthermore, ridership projection is much more complex as tourists and migrant workers are also taken into consideration.

The number of tourists has in fact been growing steadily over the years. There were 6.25 million visitors in Penang in 2015,10 and 25.8% or 1.6 million of them used public transport.11 On average, that would give 133,000 or more in ridership per month, depending on how frequent tourists use public transport. If the annual growth of seven per cent continues consistently, international arrivals alone would reach two million in 2030.12

As for migrant workers, Penang Paradigm has estimated that there are 80,000 foreign workers in Penang.13 Other sources place the estimation at 20-25% of the state’s labour force, which amounts to more than 100,000 foreign workers.14 Their presence increases the complexity of projecting ridership as well.

In sum, the estimated 116,000 in ridership is a complex computer-simulated interplay between demographic, logistic, policy, and economic development, that takes into consideration many factors including the targeted 40% public transport usage, upcoming development projects across the state that led to Halcrow’s anticipated 2.45 million population, tourism growth, estimated business trippers and inflow of investments.

Cost Difference Between LRT and Tram

The tram’s journey time is 70 minutes while the LRT’s journey time is only 40 minutes. That means the estimated cost of the tram that BCF quoted, which is based on Halcrow’s proposal, has less passenger capacity and is slower than the LRT.

BCF claims that SRS’s LRT costs up to three times more to construct, operate and maintain when compared with the tram.15The counter-proposal also questions the revised construction costs for the tram from RM40mil (on street) or RM80mil (elevated) to more than RM220mil per km.16 The RM40mil and RM80mil construction costs that BCF quoted are taken from Halcrow’s proposal, which SRS makes reference to.17 However, BCF misrepresents Halcrow’s proposal in three ways.

First, Halcrow’s estimated costs do not include the land acquisition needed for building the elevated tracks. As stated on page 32 of the Halcrow plan: “It should be noted that these cost estimates are exclusive of land acquisition costs…”

Second, the estimation in Halcrow’s proposal is provisional and needs further verification. As the extract from page 33 reads, “All of the above assumptions are provisional and will need to be verified as part of any future feasibility studies. […] As set out above, these unit rates are provisional and more detailed work will need to be undertaken to ascertain local unit rates for each in future feasibility studies.”

Third, Halcrow’s tram’s capacity is 4,500 PPHPD, while the SRS’s LRT is 18,500 passengers. Furthermore, the tram’s journey time is 70 minutes while the LRT’s journey time is only 40 minutes.18 That means the estimated cost of the tram that BCF quoted, which is based on Halcrow’s proposal, has less passenger capacity and is slower than the LRT.19

SRS’s revision of the cost for the elevated tram system is due to the inclusion of land acquisition and the utilities rearrangement underneath ground, which are excluded in Halcrow’s estimation. Besides, SRS has opted for the elevated LRT as that leads to the least traffic disruption during construction and operation.

BCF does not highlight the differences in passenger capacity, journey time and operational performances, and the cost of land acquisition in its presentation. On top of that, its estimation of the cost of the tram between RM83 to RM115 per km (exclusive of land acquisition) is based on “interviews” with two overseas tram manufacturers that have not done any feasibility studies or costing in Penang, unlike SRS.20

As such, with the absence of a funding model and because of the usage of unreliable data, at best the BCF is a cautionary note to the state government and SRS to exercise extra care with the PTMP. At worst, it is a false presentation to the public that the BCF is really an alternative when it is not.

1 The Penang state government together with the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority appointed AJC Planning Consultants, Halcrow and the Singapore Cruise Centre to carry out the “Transport Master Plan Strategy” (feasibility study) in May 2011. The final report was completed and launched in March 2013by the Chief Minister as the recommended guideline for the transport master plan. Subsequently, in August 2014 a Request for Proposal (RFP) was called by the state government to seek a Project Delivery Partner (PDP) to execute the “Transport Master Plan Strategy”, while also giving the opportunity for RFP bidders to provide their alternative proposal.
2 Penang Transport Master Plan’s Fact Sheet on Bayan Lepas LRT, http://pgmasterplan.penang. BRT/Eng%20-%20Fact%20sheet%20Bayan%20 Lepas%20-%20George%20Town%20LRT.pdf (accessed 18 September 2016).
3 Lim Guan Eng, “Foreword”, Penang Transport Master Plan, my/index.php/en/info/perutusan-ketua-menteri (accessed 25 August 2016), "Penang targets 40% public transport usage by 2030," My Sin Chew, 9 August 2014, node/100738 (accessed 25 August 2016). See also "Penang transportation by the numbers," Penang Monthly, January 2015, http://penangmonthly. com/penang-transportation-by-the-numbers/ (accessed 25 August 2016), "Studying ways to finance LRT," The Star, 17 May 2016, http://www. studying-ways-to-finance-lrt/ (accessed 19 September 2016).
4 Halcrow Consultants Sdn Bhd, The Accessibility Improvement Plan, April 2013 (Finalised Version), 7.
5 Penang Forum, Better, Cheaper, Faster: Penang Transport Master Plan (July 2016), 7. See also Penang Forum, "Penang transport plan flawed, more study required," Free Malaysia Today, 9 January 2016 category/opinion/2016/01/09/penang-transportplan- flawed-more-study-required/ (accessed 25 August 2016).
6 Department of Statistics, Pulau Pinang, https:// cone&menu_id=SEFobmo1N212cXc5TFlLVTVxW UFXZz09 (accessed 25 August 2016).
7 David Tan, "Penang's retail space glut worsens," The Star, 14 September 2015, http://www.thestar. penang-space-glut-worsens/ (accessed 29 August 2016).
8 Savills World Research, Asian Cities Report: Penang Investment, 2H 2015, (September 2015), 3, research/asian-cities---my-pn-investment- 2h-2015.pdf (accessed 29 August 2016).
9 “Di dalam mencapai tahap Negeri maju, Negeri Pulau Pinang mengunjurkan bilangan penduduk Negeri adalah seramai 1.6 juta orang pada tahun 2010 dan 2 juta orang pada tahun 2020.” (Under 4.4.2 Penduduk dan Perancangan Sumber Manusia, Rancangan Struktur Negeri: Negeri Pulau Pinang 2020, my/jpbd/RSN/# [accessed 19 September 2016]. Credit to Stuart MacDonald for this reference.)
10 Imran Hilmy, "Penang expects more tourists this year," The Sun Daily, 1 March 2016, http://www. (accessed 30 August 2016).
11 According to the Penang Tourist Survey done on 4,624 tourists conducted by the Office of Law Heng Kiang, Penang state’s exco for tourism.
12 Sarah George, "The tourists keep coming!" Penang Monthly, October 2015, http:// (accessed 25 August 2016).
13 Penang Institute, Penang Paradigm: Social Development & Inclusion, http://www. PP_SD&I_95x140_OL_FA.pdf (accessed 29 August 2016).
14 “All clear for foreign worker dorms,” The Star, 2 November 2016, news/nation/2015/11/02/all-clear-for-foreignworker- dorms-state-expects-construction-ofhostels- with-facilities-to-start-ne/ (accessed 29 August 2016). Penang’s labour force is about 823,100 in 2014 according to Ong Wooi Leng, Penang Economic Indicators: An extract from Penang Monthly April 2015 Issue 4.
15, http://www. Penang%20Economic%20Indicator%20Q2%20 2015.1432708522.pdf (accessed 30 August 2016). 15 “Why is SRS proposing and the state agreeing to an LRT system that not only is more expensive to build but costs two to three times more to operate and maintain.” Penang Forum, Better, Cheaper, Faster: Penang Transport Master Plan (July 2016), 17.
16 “The SRS Consortium originally provided a cost estimate for tram of RM40 million per km. Yet, later did a somersault and inflated the tram construction costs to over RM220 million per km. One needs to seriously question the reliability of SRS’s statistics.” (Penang Forum, Better, Cheaper, Faster: Penang Transport Master Plan [July 2016], 37.)
17 Halcrow Consultant Sdn Bhd, Public Transport Improvement Plan, April 2013 (finalized version), 35. BCF acknowledges its source in footnote 31, page 34.
18 As stated in the presentation given by SRS to Penang Forum on 6 June 2016.
19 This mistake can be seen in the post titled “Penang government’s own consultants said trams cheaper than elevated LRT,” dated 9 August 2016, on the website of Penang Forum, which Lim is a part of: state-governments-own-consultants-said-tramscheaper- than-elevated-lrt (accessed 7 September 2016).
20 Penang Forum, Better, Cheaper, Faster: Penang Transport Master Plan (July 2016), 34.

Joshua Woo is special officer to the Member of Parliament of Bukit Mertajam.

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