By Rosli Khan
I could not agree more with Prime Minister Najib Razak who is quite confident that the construction of the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) will change the landscape of Bentong, Pahang, with the opening up of the district’s economy through the rail access.
The prime minister says Bentong’s potential could be realised with the rapid development being brought to the area through the construction of the ECRL project, which will link this sleepy hollow with Gombak in Kuala Lumpur.
He drew an analogy with Seremban which already has a direct commuter line to KL Sentral. Therefore, Bentong will become another attractive location to live in for those who are working in KL. With ECRL in place, this is all very plausible. Turning Bentong into a commuter town to serve KL and the Klang Valley, it seems, will have a mixture of political and developmental agendas.
As a transport planner, I am intrigued by both factors. However, I would like to add another dimension to this project at this planning stage. Hopefully, some of the points raised here can be considered in the planning and eventual design of ECRL.
Rail travel is definitely the transport mode of the future. Investing in rail is a long-term investment, and given that a rail alignment is fixed and rigid, it lacks the flexibility (and advantages) of a highway or a road network.
As far as traffic catchment area is concerned, an unknown little station, such as Bentong, has to do a lot more in order to maximise its catchment areas and eventually turn itself into a high demand area before it can succeed.
Handling only passengers, however, is not sufficient. It has to be combined with rail freight (or cargo trains), an important element that has been grossly overlooked in the planning of Malaysia’s transport and logistics sector.
As of today, despite the heavy investment made by the government on the double tracking project between Gemas and Padang Besar, the current rail network operator has only managed to capture a poor 4% of the total freight movement (per year) in peninsular Malaysia. The majority, about 96%, is carried or dominated by road transport. I am told the figures for passenger travel is even more alarming.
This situation is a big letdown by the rail mode, not healthy financially, unsafe, and has to be rectified as soon as possible. Otherwise, our highways and roads will become more heavily congested, not to mention the environmental pollution, long-term damage and, the most dreaded, road safety issues. And these are the reasons why we are planning for more rail projects?
Railway is expensive. That is why rail planning must have a parallel development strategy. It has to be measured by the performance of other competitive modes such as road and air. In our case, it therefore requires not only careful planning but also has to be accompanied by long-term strategic policies that will reverse the domination of the road transport sector. We have definitely been road- or highway-biased, preferring to invest heavily on highways and focus more on cars as a mode of transport.
It is therefore quite refreshing when a leader touches on the importance of rail and how it can play a significant role in the future transport sector. A rail system, for its rigidity and fixed route, needs to have other supporting infrastructure that will make it work. With the right support and connectivity, it can, after all, be made to be more efficient than road transport.
Since it can also accommodate more traffic (freight and passengers), a well-planned railway, of an appropriate design, speed and technology, can outperform road mode in terms of better travel time and capacity. It is, after all, a cheaper mode of transport and less polluted.
A case for Bentong
It is hoped that this rail project for Bentong is not purely political. One may wonder, why Bentong? Where does Bentong sit in terms of geographical location and logistical importance for the country?
We know for a fact that politically, Bentong is a parliamentary seat for the current MCA leader who also happens to be transport minister. That is surely not the sole factor why the new line has to go via Bentong.
It has to have some economic and other social considerations for Bentong to spearhead this development. My search provided the following preliminary questions and answers.
The first point is, when one examines the current rail network in relation to what is planned for ECRL, it appears that ECRL is planned to be independent of the existing rail network that has already been double tracked.
Should this be the case? Why are the lines not integrated? Have we overlooked the need to integrate ECRL with the present rail network? Should we not maximise the rail catchment areas and accommodate a wider region by planning for better connectivity?
Why can’t the planners incorporate the need to connect the existing network with this newly ECRL, so that connectivity can be enhanced and the future network expanded?
Looking at the map above and the existing KTM rail line, one will notice that there is a station at Kuala Kubu Bharu (KKB), which is only 24km from Bentong. Connecting these two towns by rail will make a lot of economic and logistical sense compared to the current route that goes all the way to Gemas before the line turns upward to the east coast.
The planned ECRL station will be at Gombak, outside KL, which is still considered further south compared to KKB. While commuter trains can run between Bentong and Gombak to serve the working commuters in KL as advanced by the government, a direct connection between KKB and Bentong will allow other passengers and freight train to be connected between the new ECRL (from the east coast) onto the existing KTM rail network that can either go up north to Ipoh and beyond, or to the south.
In fact, there have been past studies for a by-pass line between Port Klang and Rawang, which is just south of KKB. This by-pass line has been badly needed due to the bottleneck at KL Sentral and the line priority given to passenger trains rather than freight trains. The KL Sentral bottleneck issue has been extensively used as the main excuse for the poor performance of the freight train sector.
In the case of this proposed link between KKB and Bentong, the passenger and freight trains need not have to come down all the way to Gombak (KL) before changing trains and travelling up north. They could very well do the transfer at Bentong and travel up north without having to come to Gombak.
This small additional link (about 24km) that connects Bentong and KKB would not only ease the travel between the east and west coasts, but would also enlarge the catchment area of Bentong. Strategically, it would turn Bentong into an important commercial hub, for both passengers and freight.
Geographically, KL is not centrally located for it to be a transport hub; certainly not Gombak either – but Bentong is. Given the short distance to the next rail line, which is located at KKB, a mere 24km away, the rail link would become a high demand corridor for both passenger and freight traffic, especially between the north-west, central and the east coast of the country.
A new network of catchment area, Bentong, can easily be expanded. Similarly, those coming down from north – Penang, Ipoh, etc – who wish to travel to the east coast, need not go all the way to KL. They can easily get off at KKB and switch to the ECRL train to the east coast.
This is strategic planning for the transport and logistics sector, a statement that I often find missing and definitely lacking in many transport project planning documents or blue prints. And if the government really wishes to turn Bentong into an important rail hub, another feasible connection is to build another short line to Raub and Kuala Lipis. (Please refer to the map above.)
At Kuala Lipis, it can re-join an existing old line that serves up to Gua Musang, Tumpat as well as Thailand, an important future connection that should be taken more seriously from now.
The distance between Raub and Bentong, after all, is only 34km, which means that the commuter town concept that the government has in mind can easily be extended to Raub, which would be only 75km from Gombak (KL) by rail.
I do hope the government will re-think the eventual strategy for Bentong. In my brief analysis, it can be bigger than what has been espoused, for this seat will definitely be hard fought over in the next general election. Come what may, I sincerely hope the rail connections will go ahead.
Dr Rosli Azad Khan is a transport planner with MDS Consultancy Group.-FMT