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New Penang hill railway may be overkill

We refer to the Malaysiakini report Penang Hill bids farewell to Victorian railway .

Penang has lost one of its valuable heritage assets when its historic funicular railway was closed on February 22 to make way for a RM63 million upgrading project.

The old system - an engineering feat in early 20 th century when built - had taken into consideration the natural terrain of Penang Hill. The 20-minute journey also offered passengers a great view of hill splendour and lush greenery. The proposed new system, however, would take passengers straight up the hill in a shorter time, depriving them of a relaxed ride and to see nature in a leisurely manner.

When the upgrading system funded by the federal government was proposed, local NGOs and representatives of the hill’s residents had submitted an alternative proposal which considered the carrying capacity of the hill, maintained the heritage value of the two-track system and took into account the feelings and needs of the hill residents and small businesses to minimise impact of the upgrading works.

We agree that the upgrading work is necessary as there have been frequent disruptions to the hill railway service but we are not in favour of the new system. We are concerned that the new one- track system which would inevitably involve slope cutting and earthworks would cause undesirable impacts to the fragile hill.

The Penang state government in its media statement stated that the new train will have a maximum capacity of 1,000 passengers per hour compared to 250 for the old system. We question the basis the projection of passengers was made because from our knowledge and past observations, the passenger load for an hour is never that many. We believe that the projection figure is purposely inflated to justify the nature of the upgrading works.

Besides this, with the increased frequency of trips up the hill and a larger number of passengers ie, proposed 100 people per trip in about 10 minutes compared to the old system which can only ferried 60 people on 30-minute trips, there is concern of the carrying capacity on top of the hill.

We are not sure if there was a consideration for the optimum number of persons at the hill top or if the environment can sustain that number without an unacceptable degree of deterioration of the character and quality of the environment, or the recreation experience that visitors expect of the hill.

We are concerned that with increased human traffic, the natural surroundings, tranquility and passive outdoor recreation would be gravely impacted as this ecologically sensitive area cannot sustain heavy use.

Besides the ecological limits, there are also the physical limits that have to be considered for instance water supply, quantity of public toilets, waste disposal issues, sewerage treatment, etc.

It is not too late for a review in anticipation of problems during the implementation of the upgrading works. The authorities should consult the local NGOs and hill residents who would be able to guide and provide valuable advice in the interest of the heritage value of the Penang Hill railway and the natural heritage of the hill itself.

The writer is president, Consumers’ Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia .