JB needs LRT system to disperse traffic coming in from Singapore via the RTS, says project proponent

TheEdge Tue, Jan 23, 2024 04:00pm - 3 months View Original

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on January 15, 2024 - January 21, 2024

THE proponent of a light rail transit (LRT) system in Johor Bahru says the state capital needs an LRT system to disperse the traffic from Singapore to the city that will be carried by the Rapid Transit System (RTS) that is now under construction.

The LRT is the best system to disperse the passengers coming from Singapore once the RTS is completed and operational, as it does not take up lanes on the already traffic-choked roads of JB. 

It is estimated that 300,000 commuters use the Johor-Singapore Causeway every day, and the RTS is expected to absorb 35% of this traffic once operational. 

“Previously, there were parties who proposed a BRT (bus rapid transit) system. However, the BRT system will make the traffic more congested as it takes up lanes. More buses on the road will also add to the congestion,” says Datuk Hasnul Hassan, executive director of business development at Ancom Nylex Bhd.

A BRT is a bus-based public transport system with dedicated bus lanes that is designed with much more capacity and reliability compared with a conventional bus system. It also has other features such as platform level boarding and pre-ticketing, and typically costs less to establish and operate than rail systems.

Hasnul says Ancom Nylex and its partners have submitted a proposal to both the state and federal governments for the construction of the JB LRT. The project is proposed to be developed on a public-private partnership (PPP) basis.

To recap, in March 2022, Ancom Bhd, Nylex (M) Bhd and LBS Bina Group Bhd announced to Bursa Malaysia that they had teamed up to form a consortium to propose the JB LRT project. Other partners are Sinar Bina Infra Sdn Bhd and BTS Group Holdings pcl.

Sinar Bina is 70%-owned by Datuk Avinderjit Singh Harjit Singh while Datuk Mizan Yahya owns the remaining 30%. BTS Group is the holding company of Bangkok Mass Transit System pcl, the operator of the BTS Skytrain and Bangkok Bus Rapid Transit.

The proposal for an LRT system in Johor Bahru calls into question the progress of the Iskandar Malaysia BRT, which was mooted in 2017.

Then Johor menteri besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin told the state assembly in December 2017 that the BRT system was chosen for Iskandar Malaysia because of the relatively small population of Johor Bahru and Iskandar Malaysia. The high cost of an LRT or MRT system was also a consideration when the state government chose to proceed with the BRT system.

A high cost of construction and operation, coupled with a low population density, will result in high ticket fares if an LRT or MRT system was chosen for Iskandar Malaysia, Khaled had said at the time.

However, progress on the Iskandar Malaysia BRT seems to have stalled. Since it was mooted in 2017, nothing much had been done on the project, except for public engagements and detailed studies, according to the Iskandar Malaysia BRT website. 

Furthermore, the development of the RTS with Singapore, for which the groundbreaking ceremony was performed by Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, in November 2020, changed the underlying assumptions and calculations, giving rise to the need for a mass rapid transit system in Iskandar Malaysia, especially Johor Bahru, to disperse the passengers and prevent any bottlenecks.

The RTS is forecast to carry 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction during peak hours, and is expected to absorb 35% of the daily Malaysia-Singapore traffic through the Johor-Singapore Causeway once it is fully operational in 2027.

According to news reports, there were 300,000 daily commuters using the Causeway prior to the pandemic. Based on this figure, the RTS could absorb 105,000 passengers daily once it is fully operational.

“Johor Bahru needs a system that can disperse this traffic coming from Singapore every day once the RTS is fully operational. And we find that the best system to do this is an LRT,” Hasnul tells The Edge at Ancom’s office in Petaling Jaya.

How much does it cost?

The project is proposed to be undertaken via a PPP with some costs covered by the consortium. Hasnul says the project’s proponents will cover the system and signalling costs for the JB LRT project.

For Phase 1A of the project — tentatively called the Jalan Tun Abdul Razak (JTAR) Line — the cost of the signalling and systems is estimated at RM1.5 billion, says Hasnul. The government, meanwhile, will undertake the civil construction of the project, estimated at RM2 billion.

“RM1.5 billion will consist of RM300 million for the rolling stock, RM800 million for the signalling and systems, RM200 million developmental cost and another RM200 million for other miscellaneous costs,” says Hasnul.

The JTAR Line will run between Bukit Chagar, where the RTS will have its Johor station, to Danga Bay. It will go through Persada International Convention Centre, Taman Dato’ Onn and Taman Tasek, where a depot is proposed to be located.

For Phase 1A, the project proponents are proposing a system running on 10 three-car train sets, which could carry a maximum passenger load of around 4,000 per hour per direction. The line will stretch for a distance of 11.3km across Johor Bahru.

However, Hasnul did not reveal the project’s land acquisition cost. He says the federal and state governments should give right of way for the LRT project, while an estimated RM35 million will be earmarked for the acquisition of private land.

The project proponents will inject a total of RM800 million in cash and land to support the construction of the LRT, while the balance will be sourced from the capital markets and shareholders’ advances, says Hasnul.

In return for part-funding the project, the proponents are looking for a 35-year concession to operate the line, he says, after which it could be transferred to the federal government.

Will it be sustainable?

While the calculations for the construction of a mass transit system are straightforward, the operation is not. In most cities, mass transit systems are public endeavours as they are rarely profitable and require government subsidies.

While not rejecting that government subsidies for fares will still be needed, especially for targeted groups such as differently-abled people, the elderly, students and low-income groups, Hasnul says the fares of the JB LRT should be priced at commercial rates.

“Johor Bahru is the only city in Malaysia where public transport can be priced at a commercial rate. Much of the city’s traffic are Singaporeans, who earn at least triple [the wages] of an average Malaysian, or Malaysians who work in Singapore and are paid in Singapore dollars,” he says, adding that there can be a mechanism to subsidise targeted groups.

In addition, the project involves the construction of the LRT system via an integrated property development using the transit-oriented development (TOD) concept. This means that the JB LRT will be supplemented with cash flow coming from TODs.

A check on LBS Bina’s 2022 annual report shows that the property development group has 5.5 acres of freehold and leasehold land in Johor Bahru on Lot 20952, 24962 and 24963. The land was acquired back in 2015.

“A 10-acre TOD development near Persada will be developed with a gross development value of RM4.5 billion. The cash flow from this project will be utilised to sustain the operation,” says Hasnul, adding that other land along the line could be developed into TODs as well.

The daily ridership of the JTAR Line is estimated to be around 40,000 passengers, according to the project proponents. However, this does not take into account the 100,000 or so daily passengers on the RTS who will need to be dispersed.

Assuming half of the passengers coming through the RTS also take the JB LRT, the system could have around 90,000 daily passengers once it is operational. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether the project proponents have done a study on which rapid transit system would be the best for Johor Bahru, considering its population spread, density and the development costs of each system.

The Johor government seems to be taking the proposal seriously. While delivering the state’s Budget 2024 speech in November 2023, Menteri Besar Datuk Onn Hafiz Ghazi stated that to make the state more attractive as an investment destination, the Kuala Lumpur–Singapore High Speed Rail and the LRT must be implemented immediately.

While the LRT system has its pros over the BRT, it is imperative that both the federal and state governments conduct all the necessary studies to ensure which system is the most suitable for the state before committing to any.

Recall that Prasarana Malaysia Bhd was set up as a result of the bailout of the two private operators of the original Ampang/Sri Petaling and Kelana Jaya LRT lines in Kuala Lumpur in the early 2000s.

The proponents of the JB LRT project, however, believe that via the PPP model and with strong and experienced partners like BTS of Thailand, they will be available to make it work commercially. Hasnul stresses that JB needs an LRT to complement the RTS and not a system that adds to road congestion.

The decision is now for Putrajaya to make. 


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