LRT for JB-Singapore line may prove more costly in long run: Experts

While KL’s proposal may lower initial construction costs, an LRT system may be more costly to maintain, they say

(The Straits Times) – Malaysia’s proposal to use a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system – instead of an MRT system – for a future cross-border rail link is a possible option that could bring down initial construction costs, experts said.

But in the long term, an LRT system may be more costly to maintain.

Studies must also be done to look into future passenger demand and whether an LRT system could meet it, they added.

On Thursday, Malaysia said it will proceed with the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link, but proposed several changes to the project’s structure and specifications, which Singapore said it is now looking into.

The decision was made following a suspension period – totalling seven months – which was requested by Malaysia so that it could do studies on various issues, such as the costs of implementation.

The link will likely be delayed beyond the original targeted completion date of Dec 31, 2024.

Among Malaysia’s proposals was the use of an LRT system instead of Singapore’s MRT system, as was agreed on by both countries last year when a bilateral agreement was signed.

Experts agreed an LRT would be cheaper to construct, as it is a simpler and smaller system.

National University of Singapore (NUS) transport infrastructure expert Raymond Ong said: “LRT trains are smaller and carry fewer passengers, so the civil infrastructure required to support them may be less costly compared with an MRT.”

“The tracks may not have to be as wide, and the design load may be smaller,” added Dr Ong, citing some examples.

In terms of capacity, Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke said two days ago that the proposed LRT system will be similar to that used in Kuala Lumpur, and will be able to carry up to 10,000 passengers an hour in one direction – in line with the RTS’ planned capacity.

But to achieve that with an LRT, experts said the trains may need to run at more frequent intervals and at fuller capacities.

Singapore University of Social Sciences urban transport expert Park Byung Joon said: “If we are expecting a big number (of passengers) only on weekends, for instance, the LRT could be a wise choice.

“But if there are high passenger loads every day and the system is run at full capacity more often, there will be more wear and tear, and maintenance costs are going to be higher.”

“When evaluating the proposal to use the LRT, the total life-cycle cost must be considered, not just the initial construction cost,” he added.

Experts also pointed out that the RTS was planned to have the same core systems as the Thomson-East Coast MRT line, such as trains and signalling systems. The economies of scale arising from this arrangement would be lost if an LRT system is used.

The 4km RTS will connect Bukit Chagar in Johor Baru to the Thomson-East Coast Line’s (TEL) Woodlands North station, and heavy maintenance is planned to be outsourced to the TEL operator – SMRT Trains – at the line’s Mandai Depot.

Dr Park said: “If we use the MRT system, we do not have to build an additional maintenance facility for the LRT system.”

Singapore Institute of Technology Associate Professor Andrew Ng said: “LRT typically carries a lower passenger capacity and operates at a slower speed than MRT.”

“The suitability of LRT for the cross-border RTS Link may be evaluated from various aspects, such as infrastructure, facilities, services, system capacity and ridership demand,” he added.

Dr Ong said a forecast of future demand would be necessary to evaluate whether an MRT or LRT system is suitable for the RTS.

“If the future peak demand exceeds the LRT system’s carrying capacity, then an MRT would be more appropriate,” he added.