The mass rapid transit (MRT) system is a combined network of underground and over ground trains that provide a large part of public transportation services in an economy. Lately, countries have started to focus on developing a sustainable public transport network such as MRT and light rail transit (LRT). Technological advancements, big data, artificial intelligence, digitalisation, and automation prioritise more sustainable transport options and offer fresh innovative solutions for the development of the urban transport sector. Smart technologies will also enhance customer experience with facilities like smart card ticketing, mobile applications for trip planners and passenger information display as it ensures cashless transactions, real-time information dissemination, and easy on-the-click services.

At a recent Southeast Asia Infrastructure conference, industry experts discussed key urban rail projects, the challenges faced, the digital initiatives taken amidst the Covid-19 outbreak across Southeast Asian economies…

Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link

The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) is a standard gauge double-track railway link infrastructure project connecting the East Coast Economic Region states to the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The Malaysia Rail Link Sdn Bhd (MRL), an entity of the Ministry of Finance of Malaysia, is implementing the ECRL. China Communications Construction Company Limited is carrying out the project in the engineering, procurement, construction, and commissioning mode. The Export-Import Bank of China is funding 85 per cent of the project, while the remaining funds will be from the sukuk local banks. The railway link project involves three sections – Section A, connecting Kota Bharu to Dungun; Section B, connecting Dungun to Mentakab; and Section C, connecting Mentakab to Gombak to Port Klang. The project has 20 stations and five spur lines that cover the whole stretch of the project. The project features 58 tunnels with a total tunnel length of 60.5 km. The Genting tunnel (twin bored) is 16 km long; once completed, it will be the longest rail tunnel in Southeast Asia. Two tunnels, the Paka tunnel and the Belimbing tunnel, have been built ahead of schedule. The project will carry 70 per cent cargo and 30 per cent passengers. The passenger service will operate at a speed of 160 km per hour while cargo services will operate at a speed of 80 km per hour. The project involves the use of precast T-Beam technology for the modularisation of the bridge structure. It also involves the mechanised bridge construction method, that is, using launching equipment for the erection of the precast beam and track laying works.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hampered construction activity, with February-April 2020 being the worst hit months. Land acquisition delays, disrupted supply chains of construction equipment and materials, and lack of manpower are among the serious challenges posed by the pandemic. The pandemic, however, has also generated numerous opportunities with developers adopting digital initiatives such as ticketing and freight management systems, passenger service information management systems (PSMIS), communications systems, and geographic information systems (GIS). The PSMIS will have an integrated digital platform to manage the passenger information display system, public address system, and clock system from both the operation control centre and from stations. A freight management system will be designed to handle freight services like waybill acceptance, cargo management, freight operation plan, etc. ECRL will provide a digital platform to sell online tickets to passengers through the webpage and mobile apps. Passengers will be able to scan their online tickets through a quick response code at the automatic gate machine. ECRL will also employ a communication system to provide an internet protocol/multiprotocol label switching network to transport internet protocol traffic like high definition closed-circuit television and voice over internet protocol telephone packets. ECRL will have two separate systems – a computerised maintenance management system and GIS – with plans to integrate the two systems to locate ECRL’s assets on a digital map.

Jakarta MRT

The 16 km long Phase I (Bundaran HI-Lebak Bulus) of the Jakarta MRT, Indonesia’s first MRT, has been completed. Phase I of the MRT project consists of 13 stations, seven of which are elevated and the remaining are underground. Phase IIA (Bundaran HI-Kota) of the MRT project, having a total length of 6.3 km, is currently at the tendering stage. Following that, the 6 km long Phase IIB (Kota-Ancol Barat) will also be extended. The cumulative length of the MRT Jakarta network (including all phases) would be approximately 29 km. The target is to expand the MRT Jakarta railway lines up to 231 km by 2030. The station distance is planned to be 0.6-1 km, with a three to five-minute headway. The project incorporates the use of an automatic train operation system for managing train operations as well as a communications-based train control signalling system. Phase I of the project commenced operations in 2019 and the average passenger traffic has increased significantly since then. By the end of the first year, the average passenger traffic had risen to over 30 million passengers, with an average of around 0.087 million passengers per day. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, MRT passenger traffic dropped significantly in March 2020, and even more substantially in April 2020. The tender procedure for contract packages 202, 203, and 205 has been extended due to the pandemic, causing the project’s completion to be delayed. Implementation of the Covid-19 health protocols will also result in significant cost escalations.

Utility diversion is a key challenge, which is not limited just to Jakarta but exists in other nations as well. Various utilities are dispersed around the area, and they must be properly identified one by one in order to make proper relocation of these utilities. The presence of heritage structures and national landmark buildings near the construction site is another issue. The soft soil and land subsidence issue near the construction site is another construction-specific issue. The risk of land subsidence is increasing significantly in the northern region. These challenges can be mitigated through the newly implemented Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology. The deployment of BIM technology with maturity level two on the MRT Jakarta Phase IIA project is one of the major digital transformation initiatives. The BIM solution conducts clash mitigation to minimise design errors and for design coordination and study. It also enables four-dimensional simulation, which combines a three-dimensional model with a project schedule to stimulate construction activity. Besides, it allows for the integration of asset data into the asset information module database for better asset management. Another technology is the Common Data Environment platform, which is used by the owner, consultant, and developer to exchange information and to collaborate. These digital initiatives were adopted as a result of lessons learned from Phase I of the project, which involved a non-automated working procedure, that is, the use of manual computer-aided design and drafting, as well as dispersed asset data for maintenance records.

Hanoi Urban Rail Project

Hanoi is the socio-economic, political, and cultural hub of Vietnam, and the city’s consistently rising urban utilisation rate has resulted in enormous strain on the public transit infrastructure. This has also caused economic losses, with the city’s GDP declining by 3-6 per cent. At present, commuter demand for public transportation is merely 10 per cent in the city. The goal is to expand this demand to 50 per cent by 2030; however, this timeline will have to be revised considering the adverse impact of Covid-19. The focus now is on increasing passenger capacity and improving the quality of public transportation systems.

The master plan for improving the urban rail system includes the development of 413 km of the urban rail network, eight urban railways, and three monorails, involving a total investment estimated at $40 billion.

Of the proposed urban railway network, 34.6 per cent is in the pre-investment stage, while 3.4 per cent is currently under development. Line IIA (Cat Linh-Ha Dong), a 14 km section, and the first segment of the 48 km long Line III (Son Tay-Nhon-Hanoi Railway Station-Hoang Mai) are both under construction. Line 6 (from Noi Bai to Ngoc Hoi), a 47 km long stretch, is the first urban line to be developed on a public-private partnership model. The LRT section (NHON-Hanoi Railway Station) on Line 3.1 is 12.5 km long, with 8.5 km elevated and the remaining 4 km underground. As of now, the civil work has achieved 86 per cent progress, with the elevated segment expected to be operational by 2022 and the entire line by 2026. The Cat Linh-Ha Dong LRT stretch on Line II-A is 14 km in length and has only 12 elevated stations. The only work remaining is final approval and handover of the route to the operator, with operations set to commence by the end of 2021.

Institutional challenges include an insufficient technical standard system for LRT, unprecedented contract disputes, and an ambiguous approach tothe operation of projects. Project funding is another significant issue that gives rise to the financial risk of escalated public debt, further worsening the country’s economic position.

Overall, there is a lot of potential for urban railways, especially with the 413 km long LRT project that is presently under construction with a preliminary budget of $40 billion. There are numerous engineering opportunities for both the public and the private sector, as well as for foreign and domestic developers.

To improve the MRT infrastructure, breakthrough solutions for near- and long-term outstanding issues must be developed. Solutions such as establishing a framework of regulations dedicated for LRT projects from pre-investment through operation, as well as the application of technologies in project management and engineering right from inception, should be adopted. Further, alternative sources of financing should be encouraged to invest in urban rail projects.

In sum

Going forward, MRT will continue to evolve and will serve as an element of a larger multimodal transit system for an increasing number of metropolitan regions. Given that mass public transportation is the backbone of most economies, government policies and financial assistance are critical for public transport operators to remain viable and to continue to facilitate the movement of passengers and freight in a sustainable manner.