Our visit to Kuala Lumpur gave me the opportunity to ride the subway and monorail there. Continuing my commitment to the MBTA Riders Oversight Committee, I have collected notes about my experience.
Structure and Fares
The public transit infrastructure in Kuala Lumpur is made up of a mix of underground light rail, elevated light rail, and an elevated monorail. There are also two heavy rail commuter lines. Like the majority of systems we have seen in our travels, KL is expanding and building extensions to multiple lines of their system.
Fares are distance based. A stored value card is available for light and monorail that provides for a small discount in fair. The stored value card is not usable on the commuter lines. It is only my personal observation, but it felt like I saw a lot less use of the stored value card in KL than previous cities. Lines to buy single ride tokens were frequently long and appeared to include many locals.
Today's public transit in KL is an amalgamation of several different services. As such, things don't always fit together perfectly. Monorail and light rail interchanges at the same station can be a very long walk apart, with some requiring walking up and down multiple flights of stairs to go over and under roads between trains. Some stations of the same name on different lines don't even connect and require two separate fair purchases. Most notably, the large downtown "KL Sentral" station is actually two different stations depending on whether you are riding monorail or traditional rail. To get between the two you must exit the station and cross a major divided highway and then walk through a mall where the monorail is on level 2 and the other rail on level 3.
As you can imagine, this can make for a frustrating rider experience.
The monorail stuck me as both futuristic and old at the same time. Perhaps past futuristic would be a better description. The fact that it was a monorail made it part of the future that was dreamed about in the past, but it was clearly showing age. The monorail cars themselves were noticeably low capacity with each train holding approximately two Red Line cars worth of passengers. In the photo above you can see the crossover bridge that allows you to board the monorail in the other direction.
The underground light rail is modern and comparable in build quality to what we have seen in other Asian cities.
When specific tricky details exist in a system (such as there being two stations named "KL Sentral" that aren't the same station), it is even more important than normal that clear signage exists to explain said details. The KL system largely failed in this regard.
Maps were extremely hard to find at any monorail stop. Kelsi and I boarded more than once knowing the station we needed to go to, but not knowing which direction it was located. We'd go to the information board in the station looking for a map and would usually find this:
More frustratingly, maps on the subway lines could be misleading to those not familiar with the system. In one case, I boarded the red line subway at the KLCC station and needed to transfer to the green line monorail. I checked the map in the subway car:
Based on the map above, we chose to get off at Dang Wangi. WRONG. After we searched for the green line monorail connection in the station, we were informed by a man at the ticket counter that the only way to changed to the monorail at that station was to exit, walk to the other station, and pay a second fair. Instead, we should re-board the train and go to Masjid Jamek, change to another subway, then change to the monorail at another station. We found the signs quite misleading and frustrating.
Kuala Lumpur was also the first city we've visited in Asia that did not number their station exits.
Overall, KL was a reminder that decisions made when building public transit systems have very long ranging impacts. The monorail was built long ago and doesn't integrate well with the underground lines, but it is still usable today so it makes sense to keep it running. A more centralized plan may have allowed for the systems to work more fluidly.
And wayfinding. Wayfinding is probably what I talk about most when writing about the public transit rider experience. Mediocre signage can make getting around frustrating and poor signage can result in wasted time in getting off at the wrong stops and backtracking. KL signage was the worst we've encountered in Asia created a barrier in our exploration of the city.