Say No to Trams in George Town

I am writing this article out of concern that trams will one day be introduced to George Town. There has been a number of people championing the reintroduction of trams. I hate to be the one swimming against the tide, but for want of some sense, I need to voice my opinion. Before you vote for trams, please hear me out.
Prague - beautiful sceneries is destroyed by the overhead tram cables.

Why I Say No to Trams in George Town

a) I don't want George Town to look like Hatyai.
Do you want George Town to have ugly over-hanging powerlines like Hatyai? That's what you are going to get if you bring trams onto Penang roads. Otherwise how do they run, on battery? If they are going to run on petrol, then what better are they from buses? I have seen many otherwise beautiful cities like Melbourne and Prague marred by these ugly power lines. The ugliness continues to the ground. No longer will our streets be smooth, they will now be crisscrossed with ugly tram lines. These only look good when they are new. After that ... well, go to the Butterworth railway station and look at the tracks and you'll get a picture of what to expect.

b) They are going to create even more traffic congestion.
Let's face it: the streets in George Town are narrow. If your tram moves too fast, it's going to be hazardous to cylists, motorcyclists and trishaws. If it moves too slow, it clogs the streets. In order to defend trams, are we going to prevent cars from entering George Town? Trams are going to obstruct traffic.

Sarajevo - most European cities are marred by tram power cables

c) They are not grade separated In other words, they are going to share the same road space with bus, cars, motorcycles, vans, etc. Have you ever get caught behind a trishaw? Do you remember how annoying it is to inch your way down the road with the trishaw in front of you? That doesn't happen often now, as the number of trishaws in Penang has dwindled. How soon you forget! Just bring in the tram, and you will experience how it is like to be blocked by a train-size trishaw.

d) The experts are mistaken
So far, all the experts called in to advocate reintroducing trams have based their reasoning on studies done in temperate countries. Can they please answer why not a single tropical1 country in Asia is using trams? What's the difference between a tropical city and a temperate city? In tropical cities, you often see commuters on motorcycles, trishaws, tricycles, tuk tuk, risksaw, etc, which do often not feature in cities with cold weather. How are trams going to run on time if it has to avoid motorcyclist and what-have-yous? Experts who advocate trams often cite cities with excellent bus network. When your bus is running at an optimum, then you think about trams. Until then, continue to improve on your bus network.

e) They are of no practical use
Do you really believe that trams can do what buses cannot? Can they ply as many routes as buses, go from Weld Quay to Balik Pulau more efficiently than buses? Will a trip from Weld Quay to Balik Pulau be even longer because we now have to take trams? I would love to see trams negotiating the winding Balik Pulau country roads.

f) They are dangerous
Do you know how slippery are tram lines during the rain? A friend of mine fell off his bicycle on the tram line. That happened in Italy. Luckily there was no approaching trams. George Town is full of motorcyclist. If you put trams in George Town, every time it rains, they have to avoid the tram lines in our already narrow and congested streets. Now, that's creating hardship for the low income people.

g) They are expensive
If you think buses are expensive, wait till you look at the price tag for trams. With buses, you can change the route anytime there's a festivity like Thaipusam or the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. Are you going to dig up the tram lines every Thaipusam, and put them back three days later? I tell you, once the lines are laid, you very much have to live with them. You also have to compromise our cultural heritage and say good bye to tall floats and chingay flags.

Padua, Italy - most cities using trams are not clogged with motorcyclists

h) They are one-size-fits-all
Right now, for low traffic routes, RapidPenang employ smaller buses. With trams, more likely it will be the same size every where. So even in the lesser routes, there will be a big, heavy tram passing by, very, very infrequently.

i) Just because they were once used in Penang doesn't make them a good idea
Those who don't learn from history will repeat it. We should find out why trams were taken off the streets. Is it because they have stopped serving their purpose?

So, if not trams, what should we do to improve the traffic situation in George Town? I say, continue improving the bus services. Create more routes. Make them reliable and punctual. Keep the fare low. Sell the benefits of taking the bus. At the very least, have a transport masterplan for George Town, taking all forms of public transport into consideration. I implore those who have advocated the reintroduction of trams to reconsider very cafefully. As far as I can see, trams are an ornamental solution for idealists.

Okay, I have said what I want to say. If you still want to introduce trams, go ahead. In future I can tell you, I told you so.

1Someone pointed out to me that Kolkata and Hong Kong are two cities in Asia with trams that could be defined as "tropical". I should say "equatorial" city in the Far East.

Since the publication of my statement above, I have been in discussion with various parties who have had regarded trams as a possible solution to George Town's traffic woes. I am sharing the conversation we had on this page, without actually identifying the other person who is corresponding with me.

Dear ... ,

A lot of studies that have been done on the success of trams are in the West and in a development urban environment that does not apply to the East and in a relatively less developed urban environment. Whether it is Hong Kong or any European city, the choice of the population does not include taking the motorcycle. In Hong Kong, for example, a person is less likely to consider the motorcycle as a possible transport option. In a Western city, the motorcycle is regarded as a recreational vehicle rather than a transport. In Penang, however, if the commuter find that it is too inconvenient to take public transport, he is very likely to buy a motorbike. The motorcycle density in George Town creates an environment that is different from the studies done in cities where trams are run.

Trams are unlikely to be able to service all the routes that can be supported by the bus. To properly introduce trams, we need to also introduce feeder buses as well as adequate car parks at the feeder bus terminals and tram stops. From the perspective of the commuter, his option is to either (a) take the motorcycle, or (b) take the bus followed by the tram. If he is able to ride a motorcycle, I believe he will opt for that. The expense of a bus ticket followed by a tram ticket (assuming there is no consolidated ticketing) makes the entire journey expensive as well as time consuming and tiring. As for commuters that can afford to drive, he will certainly stick to driving. For the low income commuter, until the reintroduction of trams, his choice was motorcycle or bus. Now, however, the bus system has been rerouted to include the tram. Hence, the reintroduction of trams may just as likely push more people to buy motorcycles and increase the motorcycle density in George Town, at the expense of the bus. Unless the authority harshly clam down on motorcycles entering the city, the tram will suffer. But to clam down on motorcycles is to provide artificial support to an unpopular form of transport. As for trams being a safer option than motorcycles, understand the Penang psyche. Believe me, Penang people would rather lose a limb than suffer an inconvenience.

Trams are not a grade separated vehicle. In other words, trams are going to share the same road space as all the other vehicles. Being caught behind a trishaw has perhaps drifted into distant memory, but reintroducing trams will bring back a train-size trishaw to block the way. I read somewhere that trams should be preferred over LRT because the LRT in KL often breaks down. Well if not properly maintained, anything that moves breaks down. Now, can you imagine the congestion caused if trams break down?

You will notice in my argument no mention of introducing the monorail. What I do want is a subway but I know we cannot afford that. So, I am not asking for monorail, I am not asking for trams. Rather, I want the bus system to be improved further. I do believe our bus system can be improved further. There is room. Penang's bus network is nowhere near as dense as what we have in Singapore, or even Macau. Taking Macau as an example, they do not have trams either, but their bus system is excellent. And the buses serve areas which are as densely populated as Hong Kong. Our Penang bus network is not saturated and the system is not fully tapped.

From a cultural perspective, the introduction of power cables for trams across the roads mean we cannot revitalize Chinggay flag processions while Thaipusam and Nine Emperor Gods floats processions may also have to be rerouted. While it can be argued that sacrifices have to be made in terms of progress, but is it really progress we are looking at? Or simply leaping from pan to fire?

I care very much for George Town and I cannot bear to see a wrong decision destroy it. For the people, it will bring hardship and traffic jams; for the city itself, it will be made ugly with lots of overhanging cables and oily tracks.

I have I have presented to you an erudite argument to chew over. And of course, I thank you all for listening. But I think it is more edifying to hear a counter argument than simply to receive applause from herds of people who do not give the issue thorough deliberation.


Dear ... ,

Thank you for listening to my views. I am truly afraid and concerned that if you continue to push for trams ahead of an improved bus system, you may end up getting something which you wish you hadn't asked for, a few months after its implementation. Instead of pushing for trams, I would encourage you to push for a comprehensive transport master plan for Penang.

The trams on their own will not work. I am not eager for a monorail system. Having said that, however, I have to point out that a monorail system actually will work. So will a mass rapid transport system or a light rail system. The tram system, on the other hand, will not only fail badly, but aggravate the existing system. Why is that so? The monorail, the MRT and the LRT are all grade separated systems. When they are implemented, they remove a percentage of traffic from the existing road system. That's because they do not share the same space as vehicular traffic. They are not affected by traffic jams and traffic lights. Hence they are able to move a large number of commuters at a high speed, giving the road system room to breathe.

Singapore's MRT allows for the rapid transit of a large number of commuters at a high speed. If Singapore decides to replace the MRT with a tram system, the whole island will face horrendous congestion, because the trams will not be able to move people fast enough while taking up road space. In fact, without the MRT, Singapore will suffer more if it decides to introduce trams; without the MRT, Singapore will do better relying on adding more buses.

Penang is now as densely populated as Singapore, as much of its population is squeezed into a small area, hemmed in by hills, whereas Singapore enjoys more flat land. It is exigent to introduce a mode of transport that can move commuters in and out of the urban centre rapidly. In such a case, the tram cannot do the job.

Much has been said about Hong Kong having a tram system. As I have mentioned about a transport master plan, we should not consider any form of transport in isolation. Hong Kong can have a tram system because much of the work of moving people about is done by its efficient mass transit railway. If Hong Kong's MTR should suddenly be taken out of service, the tram will not be able to provide any form of support even if you continue to add carriages.

One of the ways cities reduce the motorcycle density is to increase the road tax motorcycles to a level that makes in unattractive to own. That, to a certain extend, explains why there are fewer Singapore-registered motorcycles.

A tram system cannot do the work that is carried out by a grade separated system, and it is very dangerous to think that monorails and trams are similar. The implementation of a tram system in Penang will only have a minimal impact in addressing the traffic problem on the island, but will worsen congestion because we are throwing more things into an already overburdened network. We need a system that can allow Penang to continue developing and prospering without taxing the existing road system.

What does Lim Guan Eng want? He wants a subway. In other words, a mass rapid transit system. If given a choice, that is what I want too. I have heard excuses that a subway is too expensive, that our soil is too soft, that it will harm our heritage buildings, etc. I have stopped buying those excuses. A subway system will have a greater economic value to Penang than the actual cost of implementing it. If there is a will, a subway system can be built for Penang regardless our soil condition, and none of our heritage buildings will be harmed.

A subway system will allow a high number of people to be moved rapidly into the urban centre, allowing George Town to play a role as the financial hub of the northern region. Penang is after all the economy jewel of Malaysia, and the desire to have a subway has already been expressed by our chief minister himself. The implementation of a subway system will not only loosen the gridlock jams in George Town, it will allow George Town to prosper.

We should think ahead into the future, and plan a system that will work for Penang that can be expanded over time. If we put in place a tram system, the road network will quickly become saturated. Thus, no matter how expensive it is said to be, we should press for a subway. Failing that, a continuously improving bus system.

If we can get a subway system in place, then having a tram system is fine with me. The number of commuters using it will likely be just a small fraction and it will more likely have a ornamental than practical value. In fact, if we need an ornamental transport system, I would propose double decker buses rather than trams. Double decker buses are just as ornamental as trams; they are also as inefficient as a rapid transit option, but they don't leave the city with unsightly cables.

In conclusion, I reiterate the need for a comprehensive transport master plan. Also, we should support the call by Lim Guan Eng for Penang to get a subway system. And to shelf the implementation of a tram system at a later phase, after a subway and an improved bus system have been in place.

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