Malaysia hopes opening of MRT line will ease congestion

Malaysian commuters waiting for a train of the first Mass Rapid Transit Line at Kajang station on Monday. (EPA photo)

KUALA LUMPUR - A 51-kilometre commuter rail line connecting the Malaysian capital to outlying areas began operating on Monday, with the government hoping it will ease Kuala Lumpur's notorious traffic congestion.

The Mass Rapid Transit system, eventually comprising three lines, is Malaysia's biggest infrastructure project to date. The first line -- connecting Kuala Lumpur to Sungai Buloh in the northeast and Kajang in the southwest -- took six years to build and cost 21 billion ringgit (165 billion baht).

"As Malaysians, we can stand tall today as we have a world-class project for the people. We are seeing not just the MRT but the shape of the future of Malaysia before our eyes," Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak said in a speech at the opening ceremony.

Public transport in Malaysia has been woefully neglected as past administrations focused on nurturing a national auto industry and building roads and highways.

Over time that led to world-class traffic jams, which the MRT system is intended to keep from worsening and hopefully reduce.

The government has projected the population of the Klang Valley -- which encompasses Kuala Lumpur, the federal administrative capital Putrajaya, and surrounding districts -- will grow to 10 million by 2020 from 6 million in 2010. And the number of cars is expected to rise to 7 million if there is no marked shift to public transport.

According to a World Bank study in 2015, Malaysians living in the Klang Valley, the area served by the MRT system, spent 250 million hours a year stuck in traffic.

The MRT is part of Najib's ambitious plan to transform Kuala Lumpur into a metropolis on par with London, New York and Tokyo, cities with elaborate mass transit networks.

The second line, the Sungai Buloh-Serdang-Putrajaya line, is slated for completion in 2022, while the third line, known as the "Circle Line," is still under planning though Najib said he hopes it will begin operating by 2027.

Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said the MRT project is part of an even wider effort to increase use of public transport. Other initiatives include the GO KL free bus services, Sunway Bus Rapid Transit, and extension of the capital's light rail transit system.

"These have increased the modal share of urban public transportation from 10% in 2009 to 20% in 2015, well on the right track to achieve the 40% target by 2030," Liow said in a statement.

The MRT is designed to integrate with the existing three light rail lines, commuter trains, and KLIA Transit, the super-express train service linking central Kuala Lumpur with Kuala Lumpur International Airport about 60 kilometres away.

The MRT Line 1, which has 31 stations including seven underground, is expected to carry an average of 150,000 passengers a day.

Liow also said the transport ministry expects the first MRT line will cause the number of vehicles on the Malaysian capital's roads to drop by at least 160,000.

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