Transforming Sarawak’s public transportation system


Mazli (sixth right) presents a token of appreciation to Association of Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Datuk Tan Jit Kee during a recent engagement session with association members.

ONE of the state government’s main agendas is to transform Sarawak’s public transportation system.

As Sarawak aspires to achieve its vision of becoming a developed and high-income state by 2030, a reliable transportation system is vital to ensuring greater productivity and economic growth.

The Kuching Urban Transportation System (KUTS) is a government-initiated project established in line with the state’s digital transformation agenda and the development of the Smart City initiative to address the need for a modern public transportation system.

It serves as a backbone system to minimise and alleviate traffic congestion towards Kuching’s city centre by improving connectivity via an efficient and integrated public transportation system.

Undertaking this development project is Sarawak Metro Sdn Bhd (Sarawak Metro), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC).

Incorporated in February 2018, Sarawak Metro will be the implementer of the KUTS project as well as the ART system, similar to MRT Corp’s and Prasarana’s role in Peninsular Malaysia.

The proposed integrated transit map for the ART, which is subject to final alignment design changes.

Heading the company is chief executive officer Mazli Mustaffa, who has more than 22 years of experience in the railway and urban transportation industry after having worked in Malaysia and the Middle East, overseeing railway and metro projects.

“The KUTS is a government initiative project and we have the mandate to realise this project into reality and serve its main objective of alleviating traffic congestion in the greater Kuching area,” he said.

Among its objectives and benefits include providing ease of movements and linking dense residential areas, businesses, industrial areas, higher learning institutions, as well as places of interest for tourism; creating more economic opportunities, enabling trade, and facilitating access to markets and services; introducing and promoting green technology via adoption of hydrogen-powered rolling stock and feeder buses; creating job opportunities; and encouraging participation of other public transport providers in complementing the ART system.

KUTS will be developed in stages, with the project’s civil and structural works expected to commence in 2022, while the project’s system works are expected to begin the following year.

The first phase of the project will involve the construction of two urban lines covering a total distance of about 50km.

The Blue Line (Samarahan Line), which runs from Rembus in Kota Samarahan to Hikmah Exchange, covers a distance of about 27km with stops at 14 stations, while the Red Line (Serian Line), which runs from Mile 12 Kuching-Serian Road to The Isthmus, will cover a distance of about 23km with stops at 13 stations.

Most sections of the two lines will be constructed at-grade (at road level) with some sections elevated, especially in highly dense areas in the city centre.

The first and last mile connectivity for the stations will be serviced by hydrogen fuel-cell feeder buses.

At the core of the KUTS project is the ART, which has been deemed more feasible by the state government than the LRT due to the cost effectiveness of the system.

Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg said ART is one-third cheaper to build than the LRT as it does not run on rail tracks.

“You don’t need to build rails but build dedicated lanes for it, such as widening the roads,” he said at an event last year.

The ART vehicle, which is a hybrid between a bus, train, and tram, runs on a dedicated lane and not on steel tracks like the LRT. It uses rubber tyres and can run on normal road type surfaces. This significantly reduces construction costs and time.

It will also be equipped with optical sensors and intelligent navigation systems to enhance manoeuvrability and accuracy, as well as a reliable communications system.

For KUTS, the ART system will have a three-car set rolling stock with a maximum capacity of 300 passengers.

The normal service operating speed for ART will be 35km/h, which can reach a maximum designed speed of 70km/h.

The ART vehicle will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, in tandem with the state government’s aspiration to develop the hydrogen economy and realise the government’s Green Hydrogen Agenda in becoming an important producer of green hydrogen for the region.

The choice of using hydrogen fuel cell to power the ART is also in support of the government’s move to decarbonise Sarawak’s public transportation system.

“This project also provides a platform for the introduction and promotion of green hydrogen technology in public transportation,” Mazli said adding that public support is vital to ensure the smooth and successful implementation of this project.

Once in operation, Sarawak’s ART will be the first vehicle of its kind in the world to be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Abang Johari had previously stated that the ART transport system is expected to be ready by 2025.

“When we are already there, then we can go towards 2030 because the moment the Kuching-Samarahan lane has been completed, our public transport will have been improved.

“Then, we can go towards achieving a developed state in 2030, including in terms of public transport,” he told reporters at a press conference last year.

Since starting operations in September last year, Sarawak Metro has engaged with among others the Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) to ensure the KUTS development is in line with the state government’s digital transformation agenda as well as the overall development plans for the state.

It has also embarked on the Environmental, Social and Heritage Impact Assessment (ESHIA), which apart from looking to minimise environmental and social impact, aims to ensure that places or areas with important heritage value for the city and state will be protected during the development of the KUTS project.

(From left) Mazli Mustaffa, Henry Mayot, Alice Sandah and Priscilla Annabel Bisop.

The company currently has a workforce of more than 40, made up of experienced and skilled manpower in diverse disciplines and expertise.

Among the diverse workforce are local Sarawakian talents, who have vast experience in the rail and transportation industry either from working in the federal capital or overseas.

Some of these talents intentionally returned to Sarawak to share their work experience and expertise in developing the KUTS project.

One of these talents is Sarawak Metro Communication System (KUTS) senior project manager Henry Mayot, who decided to return to Sarawak to work with Sarawak Metro so that he could share his experience in developing the KUTS project.

“I am fortunate to have worked on two of the mega railway projects in Malaysia, namely the Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit (KVMRT) for Putrajaya Line and the Kajang Line, which gave me the opportunity to gain so much knowledge and experience.

“I was actively involved in the tender preparation, tender evaluation, design, supplier and material selection, system and civil interface, construction, as well as testing and commissioning. These experiences are extremely useful for me as it makes me well-prepared when the KUTS project goes through the same cycle,” he said.

Henry, who has more than 20 years of experience in communications systems, previously worked in Kuala Lumpur, as well as Korea, Australia, and Indonesia.

He hoped to see more Sarawakians with the right expertise and knowledge coming back to the state to work and be part of the exciting history that is KUTS.

Like Henry, Sarawak Metro project manager (Civil-KUTS) Alice Sandah was also involved in mega railway projects such as the KVMRT and the LRT Ampang Extension Line.

“When I was involved in these railway projects, the nature of work for these fast-paced projects was very tough as you needed to be on-call 24/7, be on-site during odd hours, and manage clients’ expectations, deliverables, and timelines. That was challenging,” she said.

Her opportunity to come back and serve in the state was back in mid-2019 when she worked with a Pan Borneo Highway contractor.

“Looking back at what I have gone through, I realise that coming back to my own hometown was the best decision I have made in my career,” she said.

As for Priscilla Annabel Bisop, Sarawak Metro’s Socio-Economic Enhancement and Development Programme (SEED) Manager, she began her career with the Malaysia Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) in Cyberjaya, Selangor.

She worked in MIGHT for more than 10 years, and was very much involved in research and consultancy services for industrial development and high technologies areas.

“My experience working outside of Sarawak has not only toughened me from being a shy person to become more confident and independent, but has also broadened my outlook.”

She believes that the KUTS project is highly anticipated by the public as it will greatly improve mobility as well as boost economic activities especially along the transit corridor.

“This SEED programme is also something new in Sarawak and Sarawak Metro is proud to initiate it. This programme not only fosters partnership between local and international project proponents but also allows for opportunities for collaboration in R&D, human capital development, and the creation of more jobs and economic opportunities.”

Creating opportunities for local workforce and industry players through ART project

The main objective of the Kuching Urban Transportation (KUTS) system project and the development of the ART is to provide the people of Greater Kuching with a more convenient and comfortable experience in commuting.

With the adoption of hydrogen fuel technology, the ART system also aims to help in improving the air quality as well as the overall quality of life in this Healthy City.

Another benefit for the people of Sarawak from the KUTS project and implementation of the ART is the opportunity to develop the local workforce and create more business opportunities in this new ‘green rapid transit’ industry.

According to Sarawak Metro Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Mazli Mustaffa this can be achieved by ensuring that the companies providing the technology and equipment for the KUTS project collaborate closely with local industry players in the State.

“From the lessons learned during our time working on the rail projects in Peninsular Malaysia, it is crucial for us to have a close collaboration with the equipment and technology providers.

“Through Sarawak Metro’s Socio-Economic Enhancement Development Programme (SEED), our goal is to ensure that Sarawakian companies will benefit from the transfer of technology; and that our local workforce, especially the youth, will benefit from the transfer of knowledge and skills,” he said.

The idea behind SEED is similar to the Offset/ Industrial Collaboration Programme that has been implemented in Peninsular Malaysia, mainly for Federal Government-funded development projects, such as the MRT projects.

The programme will not only create partnerships between the local and international firms involved in the KUTS project, but also generate more opportunities for collaboration in R&D and human capital development.

As such, through SEED, Sarawak Metro aims to establish a pool of skilled Sarawakian workers for the green public transport industry as well as create a platform for transferring knowledge and expertise.

Sarawak Metro has also designed this programme to focus on activities related to economic, technological and industrial development, in line with Sarawak’s aspiration to become a high-income and developed state by the year 2030.

The hydrogen buses are currently running a trial operation service around Kuching city.

Managing Sarawak’s hydrogen buses

MALAYSIA became the first country in the region to have hydrogen-powered buses on its streets, when Sarawak introduced the hydrogen bus service in Kuching early this year.

Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC), which started the service in January, has entrusted its wholly-owned subsidiary Sarawak Metro Sdn Bhd (Sarawak Metro) to manage the hydrogen bus operation.

Currently, the three hydrogen buses are undergoing trial operations meant for data collection.

This is mainly to prepare for Sarawak’s future plan to adopt hydrogen-powered feeder buses to complement the Kuching Urban Transportation System (KUTS) by providing first mile and last mile connectivity to the ART stations.

The data gathered during this trial operation would also be vital for the government to plan for the future of public transportation in Sarawak.

In September, Transport Minister Datuk Lee Kim Shin went on the Downtown Heritage Loop route and expressed his satisfaction with the resumption of the trial run of the hydrogen bus service, which had been temporarily halted.

He said the trial operation period was important to the state government and the bus manufacturer, in that it would gather data in preparation for future public transportation plans in the state, including the proposed adoption of hydrogen powered feeder buses for the ART system.

The trial operation service of the hydrogen bus was introduced in January this year but the operation was temporarily halted in March due to the MCO. The trial operation service resumed in September when the initial RMCO ended on Aug 31.

(From front left) Lee and his ministry’s permanent secretary Datu Buckland Bangik interact with a passenger on the hydrogen bus.

The resumption of the trial operation was conducted in accordance with the government’s SOP including temperature scanning of passengers and adhering to physical distancing requirements.
During the trial operations, the bus service is free for the public.

The buses undergo scheduled servicing and inspections, and have received the mandatory approvals from the relevant government agencies such as the CVLB, RTD, and Puspakom to ensure their reliability and roadworthiness.

The current trial operation service operates every Monday to Friday and travels along the Downtown Heritage Loop.

There are departures daily from the Riverside Majestic Hotel bus stop at 8am, 10am, 2pm, and 5pm.

Sarawak Metro plans to introduce an expanded route for the hydrogen bus next year that will also involve more trips as well.