FULL SPEED AHEAD

Malaysia 2017 | TRANSPORT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Noormah Mohd Noor, CEO of Express Rail Link (ERL), on 14 years of operations, trends in rail travel, and the future of the segment in Malaysia.

With the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high speed rail (HSR) project finally close to initiation, are you ready to participate?

Our past experience speaks for itself. Our air-rail link between Kuala Lumpur and the city's international airport (KLIA) was the first, and is still the only, HSR facility in Malaysia. We are fast, reliable, and safe, and we now have a solid 14-year track record of operating a world-class, award-winning service. Since 2002 we have been operating two lines, the KLIA Ekspres, which gets air travelers directly from KL to KLIA in 28 minutes (the quickest way to move between those two points), and the KLIA Transit for commuters, which stops at three intermediate stations. In August 2016 we transported our 75th millionth passenger. Our on-time performance for KLIA Ekspres is 99.7%, making us the second-best performing airport express operator in the world after Hong Kong Airport Express. If we were given the opportunity to be involved in the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR, we would be more than ready. We actually mooted the idea in 2000, when we were still building our pioneer air-rail link. We already believed then that if we could launch and sustain an air-rail link, we would also be able to one day introduce HSR all the way to Singapore.

Why do travelers continue to choose you when there are cheaper options for getting to the airport?

Besides the speed, reliability and safety of our trains, connectivity is another big plus. We are well connected with other transit systems in Kuala Lumpur, especially via KL Sentral Station, where one can transfer easily to the Monorail, the LRT, the KTM Komuter and the soon to be launched MRT system. At Bandar Tasik Selatan Station, there is a large bus terminal for north, south, and eastbound intercity express buses out of Kuala Lumpur. The Bandar Tasik Selatan Station is also connected to the LRT Ampang Line and KTM Komuter. For travelers headed from KL Sentral Station to the airport, we have partnered with a number of airlines to provide flight check-in services at our in-town check-in facility at KL Sentral Station, the very few city check-in available in the world (less than 5). If you take Malaysia Airlines, Etihad Airways, or Cathay Pacific, you can check your luggage in at KL Sentral. We check in around 1,000 bags per day, and we have not lost a single piece of baggage in our 14 years of operations. We are always looking for strategic partnerships to enhance our passengers' journey. We are fortunate that one of our shareholders is a 4G network provider, and we were among the first train services to provide free Wi-Fi onboard. We collaborate with MasterCard on a marketing initiative and are in discussions with online travel agents such as Amadeus, and airlines such as Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia, and Malindo Air to offer ticketing solutions for their customers. Express Rail Link is part of the Global Air Rail Alliance, an organization that meets every year to discuss and share experiences in our industry. Besides the great travel advantages of speed and convenience that electric rail transport provides, we believe its environmental and infrastructural benefits are simply tremendous.

In which segments have you seen passenger growth?

Our core business has always been the KLIA Ekspres, which used to comprise 70% business travelers and 30% leisure. Our customer base has shifted in recent years with the leisure market now growing to around 45%. In 2014, we connected our lines to KLIA2, the new low-cost carrier terminal located 2km from KLIA. This extension brought an immediate 43% increase to our passenger numbers, showing that even budget travelers were prepared to pay MYR35 for a reliable service. The trains were congested as a result of our double-digit growth of 43% in 2014 and 20% in 2015. After 14 years in operation, the government finally allowed us to increase the KLIA Ekspres single fare to RM64. However, we decided to introduce an increase of RM55 instead, as we feel that the Malaysian market is not ready to accept the RM64 fare. We did see a small reduction in the number of passengers after our first-ever fare increase in January 2016 from MYR35 to MYR55 for a single trip from the airport to the city. We had anticipated this initial drop, and we are confident of bringing the numbers up again soon by delivering even higher levels of service to our passengers. We ordered six new trains from China to increase our capacity. They will begin operations in March 2017. In line with the new trains, we have plans to revamp our arrivals and departures Halls at KL Sentral Station to accommodate the increased traffic. We want to re-energize the space and give it a fresh update. Our arrival hall will also sport a new look as the area will integrate with MRT's pedestrian bridge linking to the Muzium Negara Station. Revamping work is currently underway and once the MRT starts operating, KL Sentral will be the one-stop center for seamless travel in the city.

How has KLIA Transit benefited from the growth areas along the corridor, and vice versa?

The KLIA Transit stops at three intermediate stations. Since our launch in 2002, there have been plenty of developments along the corridor, especially in and around Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia. Traffic through Putrajaya was initially low, but with the tremendous growth in the area and neighboring Cyberjaya—with its many multinational companies and universities—we have seen the number of passengers triple over the years. The area around Salak Tinggi Station was once an oil palm plantation, but it has seen rapid growth in recent years. There is now a large residential area around the station, and early this year the new Xiamen University Malaysia (its first branch campus outside of China) opened its doors. The connectivity factor via our transit line is definitely one of the reasons it opened there. We are happy that the stations we built have spurred growth in the surrounding areas.

How has Express Rail Link evolved as an organization?

We are proud not only of what we have achieved, but of the fact that we are able to show others the way. We started with a workforce dominated by foreign expertise, but we prioritized knowledge transfer and today the train and track maintenance workforce is 99% local. We have developed a high level of expertise in the HSR sector. The teams at our subsidiary ERL Maintenance Support (E-MAS) have worked as consultants on projects locally and internationally. E-MAS has consulted on the Suvarnabhumi Airport Railway Line in Bangkok as well as the Puerto Rico Light Rail Project. Since 2013, staff of ERL have supported operations at the Makkah Metro train, a service that runs seven days a year to cater to the surge of pilgrims during the Hajj season.

What are your ambitions for the HSR connecting KL and Singapore?

This has remained our greatest aspiration ever since we mooted the idea in 2000. But perhaps because of the sheer size of the project and the fact that it would entail a great deal of intergovernmental interaction, the country was only ready for it recently, when SPAD (the Land Public Transport Authority) was formed a few years ago and started a feasibility study. There is a lot work to be done on issues such as immigration, land use, and shared operations, however we are happy to note that MyHSR and the Singapore Land Transport Authority have been working hard on this. There will be an international open tender and we are definitely keen to participate. We are hopeful about our prospects in view of our expertise.