IT has been almost 10 years since I last travelled on a Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTMB) train. My first experience was in 2010 when the Electric Train Service (ETS) was introduced for the Kuala Lumpur-Ipoh run. 

It was an eye-opener as I had a good feeling of the then new electrified rail service. My latest experience over the last weekend from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth was even better.

Credit must be given to KTMB for working hard to have train services comparable to some of the better ones in the world despite facing many constraints and challenges. 

The ETS train was safe and speedy. Electrification has certainly changed the landscape of our rail services, especially the ETS.

The efficiency of KTMB’s electric multiple units-powered trains have brought significant efficiency compared with the diesel-powered locomotives of the past. What’s even better is that the trains are quieter even when travelling at high speeds.

On some stretches, the ETS train even touched 143kph despite cruising on the narrow one-metre-wide track! That’s even faster than the legal limit of 110kph on our highways. 

Credit must be given — KTMB operates the fastest metre gauge in the world. The metre gauge measuring 1,000mm or 3 ft 3 3/8 inch, is a legacy that dates back to 1885 when railway services were introduced in the country to initially transport tin ore from the mines to smelting centres.

All in all, the journey from KL Sentral to Butterworth took four hours and 18 minutes, just about the same as travelling by car on the North-South Expressway on a relatively not-so-busy day — minus the hassle.

On some days, especially during festive periods or unusually long weekends, the same journey can stretch to as long as eight hours or so.

Given the carnage that we have on our highways, commuting by rail is certainly a wise option. Why not?

You can sit back and enjoy the scenery in cool air-conditioned comfortable seats without having to endure driving fatigue. You don’t have to be alert for aggressive bus or lorry drivers, reckless motorists in their compact city-driving cars thinking they’re behind the wheels of an Italian sports car, those in boxy MPVs driving like The Beast from the White House, or those Mat Rempit with their daredevil motorcycle stunts.

In addition, you don’t have to face unnecessary bottlenecks due to repair works which could have been done at night. (I’m wondering why some repairs couldn’t be done under floodlights at night — it’s cooler, the workers can focus better and in turn raise their productivity and there is far less traffic).

But as always, costs are often cited whenever questions are raised as to why the migration towards modernisation and automation often happens at a snail’s pace. That outdated mindset certainly needs some tweaking.

Back to the ETS train: Another commendable feature is that cleanliness is maintained on board, with staff taking away your trash in huge bags. This service is somewhat similar to those on Japanese trains.  

Everything about my latest ETS train journey was wonderful. It’s no wonder that the ETS business accounted for a quarter of KTMB’s revenue in 2017. It’s expected to rise further, especially with the completion of the Gemas to Johor Baru stretch next year.

KTMB has also recently introduced a Business Class coach from Gemas to Padang Besar and that should boost income. 

But other matters related to the ETS train service needs to be improved. Like having a more user-friendly app or website to help commuters purchase their tickets, be it Business Class, Platinum or Gold.

For example, if one needs to reset a password after having forgotten it, the process should have been made easier. I believe the not-so-user-friendly online service has compounded to the long queues at the ticketing counters.

It can be frustrating, as my old-time badminton buddy Saw Swee Leong has found out. Last Monday, he had to queue for one-and-a-half hours at the Ipoh railway station just to buy a ticket to Butterworth! 

Such frustrations could be prevented if KTMB had taken into account the strong public demand for its ETS trains.

Secondly, it should immediately address frustrations of purchasing tickets online.

My other main gripe in an otherwise pleasant journey was the inadequate lift facilities at the Butterworth railway station. The planners should have thought that a lift for a two-storey office building isn’t the same as one for a train station. It’s a transportation hub with hundreds of people coming at one go. 

With the increasing longevity of Malaysians and their growing penchant for travel, especially the seniors citizens with more leisure time and disposable income, facilities such as escalators and additional lifts should have been factored in.

These days, frequent travellers are not just about those from the 20-somethings to the 40-somethings. They also include the 60- or even 70-something “warga emas” with a yen for travel.

KTMB needs a rethink on these additional infrastructure if it wants to be in the forefront of the rail business like those in developed countries.

Quality is never an accident but it’s always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skilful execution.

The writer is a former chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of Bernama