NAVIGATING Kuala Lumpur's city centre transit system and transferring between modes is not as straightforward as it might seem. Leaving the monorail at Bukit Nanas to change to the light metro at Dang Wangi looks simple on the system map, but in reality it is a 400m walk between the two stations via a covered walkway which crosses a busy road. Both modes also require separate tickets adding to the complications and the journey time.

KL JulyIt's a similar experience when interchanging between KTM commuter and transit services at other stations around the city and is a legacy of Kuala Lumpur's past splintered approach to public transport development. While it spawned the 8.6km monorail and a two-line light metro network in the 1990s, the 13 separate entities responsible at that time were not too interested in working with one another to provide seamless integration between different forms of transport.

Tasked with unpicking this system, and furthering the development of public transport in Kuala Lumpur and the Malaysian peninsula, is the government's Land Public Transport Commission (Spad). Established in 2011, the body is overseeing the development and rollout of the National Land Public Transport Masterplan, which outlines an integrated transport network connecting all cities across peninsula Malaysia.

"The idea was that in order to become a developed country, we must have a world class public transport system," says Mohd Azharuddin Mat Sah, Spad's CEO. "The initial focus was on how to develop public transport for KL, which was bursting at the seams and suffering from gridlock all the time. However, the national aspiration is to meet a public transport modal share target of 40% by 2030. Obviously for Kuala Lumpur we will get there faster than 2030, in fact in the next five years we have an aspiration to get to more than 30%. And you can see that from studies we had a 10% modal share in 2009, in 2015 this was 20%, which is already quite a big jump."

Meeting this target in KL in the next five years is feasible due to a number of new transit projects set to come online during the period, which will boost transit ridership by 400,000 journeys every day by mid-2017, taking thousands of cars off the city's roads.

Already Prasarana has added 18.6km to the Ampang light metro line in the past eight months and a 17.4km extension to the Kelana Jaya line from Kelana Jaya station to Putra Heights was set to open as IRJ went to press. In addition MRT Line 1, the Sungai Buloh - Semantan first phase of the 51km link from Sungai Buloh to Kajang, is on schedule to open in December, followed by the remaining Semantan - Kajang section in mid-2017.

Beyond this, plans for a third 36km light metro, LRT-3 are in the works while contracts are being awarded for the 52.2km MRT Line 2 which is projected to open its first section in July 2021. Azharuddin adds that a feasibility study is also underway for a third metro line, MRT-3, with a decision expected on this by the end of the year.

The need for continual development in KL is compounded by the city's growing population. In 2010, this stood at 6 million but by 2015 had grown to 7.4 million in greater KL. "This is a massive jump, which meant we had to fast-track our rail programmes," Azharuddin says.

Guiding this programme is the Greater Kuala Lumpur Transport Masterplan, which details the city's upcoming big-ticket infrastructure projects and also outlines plans for greater integration.

Indeed Azharuddin says the biggest challenge for Spad is delivering last mile connectivity. "Cars are relatively cheap, fuel is relatively cheap, so I think the challenge for us is how we influence the residents of KL to leave the convenience of driving their car from their house, to take the bus to the next bus stop to get ready for the next rail journey," he says. "What we are doing is focusing on how Spad plays the role of an integrated planner."

One of the major solutions under development to answer this question is a new journey planner app. Set for launch by the end of the year, the application uses real-time data to allow passengers to better plan their journeys by informing them exactly when the next train or bus is set to arrive and the precise cost of the journey.

In addition, Spad is transitioning ticketing services in the city to an integrated system similar to Hong Kong's Octopus and London's Oyster, which Azharuddin says he expects will be launched sometime in 2018.

Spad has also overseen significant work to rationalise interchanges between modes at some stations, and further developing the rail station as a commercial hub and the centre of future communities is a critical element of the strategy. Azharuddin says that while some Prasarana stations do have a few shops at present, Spad is looking at various approaches from around the world to shape its approach, including Hong Kong, which has had significant success with transit-orientated developments, London, and China. "We have looked at how China has been able to deliver public transport on such a wide scale so fast," Azharuddin says. "It's amazing what they have now."

"We are looking to move to a high-density city, which is critical because of the concern with urban sprawl," he says. "Developers are warming to this idea, and Prasarana already has three locations like this, while it is very much the thinking with MRT-2 where they are developing the line on government-owned land and the opportunity to recover the project's expenses are high."

He adds that Spad has taken a further step towards achieving this objective by encouraging the development of park-and-ride facilities. However, the emphasis is increasingly on the provision of direct public transport links to these developments, which as well as having the station, are also populated with offices, commercial developments and housing. As a result Azharuddin says feeder bus networks will be substantially expanded to accommodate demand for the larger network. He also says that Spad is studying the development of a light rail network for KL.

"We have got approval from the economic council to investigate and study a tram system in Putrajaya and Cyberjaya, in their city centres," Azharuddin says. "This will come up publically in the next few months, and we are doing detailed engineering at the moment."

Azharuddin could not confirm the expected completion date for the inaugural project, but said that depending on its success, Spad is keen to roll out light rail in other areas. He added that it hadn't ruled out other monorail projects for similar transit connectivity schemes, but is now leaning toward trams.

"There is no right or wrong way, it depends on the viability of the project," Azharuddin says. "In KL it is so dense that you need more high-capacity lines. There is also a lot of interest in trams, people can jump on and off quite easily and it is less expensive than a monorail. I think it will be an important part of our project."

Main line

Improving local connections in KL is mirrored with efforts to develop Malaysia's main line network. Track doubling and electrification is now complete on the line north from KL to Ipoh, Butterworth and the terminal at Padang Besar on the Thai border, which has had a major impact on journey times, with trains from KL now reaching Penang in 4 hours. The focus now is on increasing the frequency of services on the line with only three services currently operating direct between the two termini per day and 17 trains using the line in total in each direction.

South of KL, double-track and electrification is in place to Gemas, and Azharuddin says a contract from the Ministry of Transport will be awarded this year to complete the line to Johor Bahru. "By 2020 we will have the full double-track line completed and this will make a major difference," he says. "For example on Chinese New Year, where there is a major exodus from KL and the highways are jammed, you will see a major share of people using public transport."

Spad is also overseeing the development of a new rapid transit system between Johor Bahru and Singapore's MRT network at Woodlands. Up to 100,000 people per day are currently crossing the border via 14 KTM shuttle services, which run during the morning and evening peak. However, the RTS project will provide a long-term high-capacity solution. Azharuddin says the detailed design phase of the project is underway in cooperation with Singapore and a decision to proceed is expected in mid-2017.

Kuala Lumpur's record of delivering its recent transit projects on-time is testament to the forward planning process now in place. Spad is also in the enviable position of receiving full support from the national government, which is backing rail as the backbone of the capital's transport system, and has committed Ringgits 100bn towards funding new projects.

The MRT 1, light metro extensions, KTM and main line double-track and electrification projects are consequently all entirely government-funded either in the form of development expectation and direct financing or long-term bonds. Azharuddin says the key to this success is long-term and cooperative planning with government agencies like the Ministry of Finance as well as the political will to make certain projects happen. Malaysia's strong financial position is also a big positive.

"When we issue bonds we are oversubscribed by internal and external agencies," Azharuddin says. "That is an extremely positive recognition of the financial market and our economic viability for infrastructure projects."

However, for future projects Spad is considering private sector investment. Azharuddin says that the government and Spad are looking to benefit from private sector efficiency, and are open to the private sector operating future lines as part of a public-private partnership.

This could include the proposed high-speed project from KL to Singapore, which has already garnered a lot of international attention and for which Azharuddin says a decision is expected imminently, and a new East Coast Railway (ECR) to connect towns and cities in the east of the peninsula, which is now in the request for information stage.

This project involves building a 600km standard-gauge line from KL to Kuantan, linking cities along the eastern coast including in Terengganu and Kelantan provinces, before terminating in Tumpat, on the border with Thailand.

Trains will operate at up to 200km/h on the line which, in addition to providing a valuable passenger link, will serve to increase railfreight traffic by connecting many industrial towns and the key port at Kuantan to the rail network for the first time. Only 5% of Malaysian freight is transported by rail at present, a situation Azharuddin says Spad would like to change.

"The key part is to develop a dynamic relationship between the private sector and our national railway, KTM, in order to have that growth," he says. "We are looking at that because we definitely need to improve our share of the freight goods delivered in the country."

With no timeframe in place yet for implementing the project, he says the emphasis now is on completing the RFI process and presenting the findings to the government's economic council in order to assess the benefits.

The ECR, KL's investments in transit infrastructure, the high-speed and main line capacity improvements will all require substantial investments in rolling stock. Azharuddin says that all of the procurement will be conducted through an open tender. However, there is a general expectation that any contract awarded will result in a transfer of knowledge. "Manufacturers should be excited by the prospects of supplying Malaysian projects," he says. "But I think that when foreign companies come in they will generally have a better chance to succeed if they are supporting local industry."

Past efforts to support the growth of local industry are indicative in the contractors working on the current projects, with a strong Malaysian contingent evident, particularly for civil works which are virtually all carried out by local companies.

The development of local industry is also reflected in the growing influence of Spad as a national organisation since it was founded six years ago. Azharuddin was appointed CEO in September 2015 and he says during that time he has focused on continuity in order to meet the organisation's primary objective: to deliver the projects on time and on budget both in terms of operations and approvals.

Certainly since Spad was established the pace of delivery has picked up, and Azharuddin says that the government is bullish in that when it says things will happen, they generally do. He admits that the organisation is still learning but that this is one of its real strengths. And with its comprehensive approach, it is well placed to deliver the results the country and the government are looking for.

"Many, many projects are being delivered here and we are making big changes to people's lives," Azharuddin says. "From the position we were in 10 years ago, where we had the monorail, two light metro lines and a bit of double-track planned, we have gone at it in a big way. Our political leaders see the importance of public transport and giving the people access and no-one can claim that it is not good for the country because everyone can see the benefits," he says.