Rail commute works best for me

NOW one month into a new government, Malaysians have been told a few harsh truths about the state of the country's finances. While national debt has remained steady, the government insists on selling a narrative of financial distress.

Due to this, the government has decided to shelve the high-speed rail project, scrap the MRT3 Circle Line and put on hold the Klang Valley double tracking project until an open tender is cleared.

Expect the KTM to be on 45-minute intervals for an even longer period, then.

Meanwhile, the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) hangs in balance. It seems a straight answer is still pending on this one.

This rail network would have the start of further public transport initiatives in Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang, initially by bus before moving towards rail or even a streetcar network (it would be fun to see streetcars running on the flatlands of Terengganu).

All of this will delay the growth of rail and public transport in the peninsula. At best, the delays will make future projects cost more. At worst, we will be going back to cars, further congesting roads while building more roads and parking lots.

This, of course, fits into the prime minister's vision of starting yet another national car company in his continued "Look East" policy which seems to be oblivious to the fact that Japan has more people travelling by train than car.

Speaking of which, an electric car stuck in traffic is still yet another car stuck in traffic. Only difference is the electric car will probably run out of power faster than a petrol-driven car. That is unless, the electric car is a Tesla.

Are rail projects costly? Yes, they are. They always have been.

The initial investments for public transport, coupled with the subsidised rates for passengers will always be expensive to governments. And this is why it is coupled with land assets and in some countries, coupled with congestion charges and toll collection into one entity and offsetting the cost of one for the other.

Though the way the government is working, tolls may soon no longer be applicable at all and thus, there will be a need to come up with a new funding model for public transport.

Pakatan may just be delaying such projects until they get a grasp of what to do to reduce the traffic with buses and keeping to their manifesto of an additional 10,000 units nationwide. But here's the catch, a bus stuck in traffic will just add on to the problem.

There will still be a need to make it easier for people to take a train and walk to stations, rather than use buses with no exclusive lanes which will just be snagged in the same congested roads and highways.

What kind of society do we want? Rail projects coupled with a bus network, will increase national productivity by removing time spent on travelling – this seems to be misunderstood.

This means you have your hands and brain free from focusing on the road, to focus on something else. It does not necessarily mean shorter commutes, it means you are able to focus on other items while commuting.

Similarly, having public transport is supposed to undo the need for a car thus saving costs. It does not mean you take the train. It means selling off your car and freeing up that income to spend on a monthly pass on the train, taking the bus, and even using ride-sharing apps whenever you need to ride a car. And this is where you can have either an electric or hybrid car play a role.

On top of that, it will cost less for local governments when compared to roadworks if the traffic is reduced. It will also mean less land being left idle for parking lots. For some cities, roads are altogether closed up to allow pedestrians to walk.

Heck, we could all do with more exercise and more plazas and open spaces reclaimed from the tarmac.

So while the government has decided to hold rail projects and keep mum on buses, we will just have to wait for a plan of giving cities back to pedestrians, bolstering public transport and moving away from cars.

Till then, the idea of connecting Malaysians across the country will remain limited to either a flight, or a highway, by car or express bus, with traffic congestion, land used for parking, and more angry people flailing steering locks.

We need to stop paving paradise to put up parking lots.

Hafidz Baharom is a public relations practitioner. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com