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Sunday, 7 May 2017

(The Star) Towards a world class public transport

Eighteen months after being ‘thrown into the deep end’, SPAD’s CEO speaks on the challenges.


Talk on public transport here can get pretty negative: protests over e-hailing, unsatisfactory taxi and bus services, high number of road accidents, train breakdowns, congestion, lack of connectivity and many more.

In short, whomever that is regulating the industry typically gets a lot of unsavoury airtime, and this is especially true when it comes to the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD), a statutory board under the Prime Minister’s Department.

Thankfully, Mohd Azharuddin Mat Sah, who was put in the CEO’s seat in September 2015, is mentally prepared for the job.

“I am well aware that I am being judged by the public every single day,” he said in an interview as he took stock of SPAD’s report card for 2016.

It was indeed a busy year for the six-year-old agency that has one of the toughest tasks in the country – to be the master planner of all things related to land public transport, a sector that is being given close attention in recent years under the Government Transformation Programme, following decades of neglect and underinvestment.

From the mid-1980s, the country was engrossed with building its “national car”, followed by a slew of expressway projects. The heavily used 179km single-track from Rawang to Ipoh was only turned into an electrified double-track in 2008, a good 123 years after rail services debuted in then Malaya.

“Since its establishment, SPAD has injected a new drive and urgency into public transport planning by introducing master plans for both the country as well as for localised regions. The master plans detailed the commission and Government’s goals and vision for public transport, while at the same time specifying initiatives designed to raise the level of service and safety standards of public transport that also covers commercial vehicles,” said Azharuddin, who took over after SPAD’s first CEO, Mohd Nur Ismal Kamal, became CEO for MyHSR Corporation Sdn Bhd.

Azharuddin, 43, brings to SPAD a wealth of experience to deliver the agenda of building a world class land public transport for the country.

With his formative years spent in Kuala Lumpur, Azharuddin studied at the Bukit Bintang Boys’ Secondary School, followed by the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, before obtaining his Economics and Law degree from University of Kent, United Kingdom.

He held various positions in corporations such as Shell Malaysia and Shell International (1997-2008), and Khazanah Nasional (2008).

In 2010, he was seconded to Pemandu (Performance Management and Delivery Unit, under the Prime Minister’s Department). He left to join Microsoft in 2013.

In 2014, he returned to Pemandu where he was director for Greater KL/Klang Valley and Urban Public Transport and he was involved in the labs that resulted in the Urban Public Transport National Key Result Area and Greater Kuala Lumpur National Key Economic Area under the National Transformation Programme.

To no one’s surprise, Azharuddin did not enjoy the luxury of a “honeymoon period” when he clocked in at SPAD.

“I had to hit the ground running. It was a task that is extremely important to the nation, one that started way back in 2009/2010, when the Government launched the Government Transformation Programme (GTP). It contains this huge agenda and aspiration for public transport, and SPAD was established as part of the aspiration.

“The mandate from the Government is for the country to reach a 40% modal share by 2030, which means four out of 10 trips in future should be made using public transport,” he said.

The creation of SPAD was borne out of great necessity as the regulation and planning of land public transport is highly fragmented.

There were 13 different government agencies involved in different aspects of planning, without a single lead to pull everyone in the right direction, thus posing challenges in seamless coordination and having coherence in policy-making and implementation.

When it came to public transport master planning, there is a multitude of federal, state and local government agencies, including municipal councils acting as stakeholders, and all are capable of influencing the outcome.

By drawing upon and consolidating the functions of disparate departments and agencies, the creation of SPAD was not without its labour pains.

Following the passing of the Land Public Transport Act, SPAD took over the functions of the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board (or CVLB, an agency under then Entrepreneur Development and Cooperatives Ministry), the Department of Railways (from Transport Ministry), and the licensing function for tourism vehicles from the Culture and Tourism Ministry, in Peninsular Malaysia. CVLB, the Railways Department and the Tourism Ministry continue to exercise their authority in Sabah and Sarawak.

Thankfully, things are more clear cut now. Last month, the Transport Minister affirmed SPAD’s role as the coordinator of all state transport master plans to ensure holistic land transport development across Malaysia.

After chairing the first National Transport Council meeting on April 20, Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai voiced hope that having better coordination would “avoid redundancy and wastage of resources”.

SPAD, which has to coordinate, plan, execute and regulate public transport programmes and projects, not just for rail but also for buses, taxis, freight, and terminals as well, was invited to brief the National Transport Council.

Improvements in Urban Rail

“In the last five years, we can see that the modal share of public transport in KL has increased from a very low 10% (in 2009), to 21% in 2015.

“We expect this to improve further following the LRT extension programme that has been completed since then, as well as after the entire Sungai Buloh-Kajang MRT line is fully operational by July,” said Azharuddin.

In the 2016 customer satisfaction survey for Greater KL/Klang Valley commissioned by SPAD, 84% of public transport users voiced satisfaction with services, especially those involving rail.

The same survey also found that 78% of respondents expressed their wish to use public transport in future, up from 67% recorded in 2015.

“This indicates that we are on the right track. However, the road ahead will not be short of challenges as we strive to drive greater reach and integration.”

Preliminary work on the LRT3 project from Bandar Utama, Petaling Jaya, to Johan Setia, Klang, has already commenced. Likewise, work on the MRT2 or the Sungai Buloh-Serdang-Putrajaya Line is also progressing smoothly.

“Up to 200km of urban rail will be built over the next five years in Greater KL, making the target of 40% modal share achievable,” said Azharuddin.

In the course of the last five years, SPAD improved KTMB’s Komuter services by upgrading them from three to six-car sets.

The other major initiative is the Klang Valley Double Track signalling upgrade, which will allow the doubling of service frequencies by cutting 15-minute intervals to 7.5 minutes.

SPAD is also deeply involved in negotiations with its Singaporean counterpart on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail project, slated for completion in 2026, as well as the proposed Johor Baru-Woodlands Rapid Transit System.

Sustaining bus services all round

To ensure better coverage for social routes outside Klang Valley, SPAD rolled out the myBas service in Seremban, Ipoh and Kangar, and continues to keep the Interim Stage Bus Support Fund (ISBSF) running to provide relief for operators running loss-making or marginal routes by topping up shortfalls in revenue.

“Under ISBSF, SPAD will work with qualified bus companies to improve the standard of stage bus services so that no one will be left behind, no matter how remote their location,” said Azharuddin, who added SPAD has disbursed RM618mil to stage bus operators since 2012 under ISBSF.

Other initiatives to improve bus services include the Stage Bus Service Transformation programme, the Bus Network Revamp, the GoKL free bus service (costing around RM14mil a year), and introducing a code of practice for buses in 2012 to elevate safety standards.

Managing taxis a huge challenge

The taxi industry is another difficulty but Azharuddin takes it in his stride.

Azharuddin’s cellphone number is widely known among taxi drivers. His phone flashed non-stop at the height of taxi drivers’ protest against e-hailing providers such as Uber and Grab. As soon as he tries to “leave” the taxi drivers’ WhatsApp group, he will be added back the next minute.

“The taxi drivers would say, ‘speak up quickly, the CEO is here!’ Now, I just let it be and read whatever they post about me and the commission,” he said with a smile, probably a sign that the worst has blown over and some clarity is on the horizon.

In July, the amendments to the Land Public Transport Act to regulate the e-hailing business are expected to be debated in the Dewan Rakyat.

“Uber and Grab are also seen as important components in bridging that last mile between homes and trains or transport terminals. Our studies under the Greater KL First-Last Mile Improvement Survey indicate at least 30% of e-hailing users use the service to get to train stations, or vice versa. We are probably one of the first few in the world to present the matter for parliamentary approval so that this sector can be regulated,” said Azharuddin, who is also one of the few CEOs that “walks his talk”.

He tries his best to use the MRT to commute to his office, or vice versa, at Platinum Sentral, at least once a week. A one-way journey from office to home would entail him catching a feeder bus from KL Sentral to the Pusat Bandar Damansara MRT station, where he then boards the train that takes him to Sungai Buloh, before walking home – a trip lasting around an hour.

“As a public transport planner, you have to experience what is on the ground. When I use public transport, I inspect the buses and talk to people,” said Azharuddin, who wears a tracking device that logs the number of steps he takes.

No doubt, various hurdles still remain in the way of bringing all transport stakeholders on the same page but Azharuddin remains unfazed.

Even though he is aware that an arduous journey awaits him, he is thrilled to be on the road that will ultimately ease traffic flow, uplift communities, improve the environment and strengthen the economy.

With the CEO himself hitting the ground at such a frenetic pace, public transport users can only hope that things will get better sooner, rather than later.

“My personal target is 20,000 steps a day, consisting of running and a good deal of walking to inspect bus stops, taxi stands and transport terminals. I also regularly ask my team for feedback of their experiences using public transport. As regulators, we must roll up our sleeves and deal with realities on the ground.”