L (ame) R (ocky) T (acky)? | Macau Affairs
Calls to improve the functioning of the problematic LRT railway, which attracts few people and brings in little money, range from setting up selfie spots and launching limited-edition memorabilia to free ride to the rapid expansion of the rail network.
It is not hyperbole to say that the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) project has been hampered by misfortune after misfortune. Faced with a series of delays, lawsuits and controversies, the Taipa section of the city’s first railway was finally commissioned in December 2019 after nearly two decades of work. But the opening did not spell the end of his bad luck. Less than two months after its full operation, the Covid-19 pandemic has arrived. While the LRT – the over 10 billion MOP (US $ 1.25 billion) project with an annual operating cost of around 1 billion MOP – remains sorry amid the scarcity of travelers and lack of residents’ support, observers demand action from the authorities to make this elephant more profitable. The latest annual report from Macau Light Rapid Transit Corp Ltd (LRT Corp), a government-controlled company to oversee the railway, shows that the railway’s total passenger volume has just reached nearly 1.06 million in its first full year of operation in 2020, or 2,891 passengers per day, thanks to the average daily volume of 16,000 recorded in January 2020 before the start of the coronavirus epidemic. Following the end of the free ride for passengers in February 2020, coupled with the negative impacts induced by the pandemic, the daily volume of LRT passengers has only remained between 1,100 and 2,200 since then. The annual report also states that the railway’s ticket revenue, its only income at the moment, amounted to just MOP 2.98 million last year, with the one-way fare ranging from MOP6 to MOP10. In contrast, the passenger volume recorded by the city’s two bus operators totaled around 166 million last year, or 454,700 passengers per day, although a drop of more than 27% due to the pandemic of Covid-19.
Macau Public Utilities Concern Association chairman Chiang Chong Fai recently called for the suspension of LRT to save public coffers at a seminar. “As the LRT is not a commercial and private project, we should not focus too much on its profitability. But we still have to consider the value this could generate, ”he explains the rationale for his bold appeal. “Its operational efficiency has been well below the satisfactory level with the enormous operating and maintenance costs and the high volume of passengers… It has also not been able to create synergy with other means of public transport. “So, I think it makes sense to suspend the operation of the Taipa section of the LRT until the completion of other lines and sections like the Hengqin Extension Line and the Peninsula East Line,” continued he. “There will surely be problems because of the suspension, but the cost of keeping it running is too high – the government cannot keep pumping money into the bottomless pit.” At present, only the MOP 10.2 billion Taipa section of the railway – 9.3 kilometers long with 11 stations – is in full swing, while the government has budgeted up to 4.5 billion. MOP to build a station in Barra, connecting the railway line to the peninsula, which is expected to be ready by 2023. MOP 3.46 billion Hengqin extension line works, connecting the Taipa section to the border terminal Macao-Hengqin, are also underway and are expected to be completed by 2024. For the 7.65 kilometer Peninsula East Line, connecting the Taipa section to the newly reclaimed land and the Gongbei border gate, a public tender for construction is expected to be launched soon; for the 3.3-kilometer Seac Pai Van line, the government decided to reopen the tender for construction after the results of last year’s initial tender failed to meet expectations. expectations. There has still been no news for the two sections of the Macau Peninsula – an important part of LRT – as some members of the community have criticized that potential works could impact their daily lives.
The suspension is “not responsible” given the government’s efforts on the project, said Ron Lam U Tou, a local political commentator, who adds that the railway’s annual operating cost is around. 1 billion MOP. “It is difficult for the operation to reach equilibrium given this unreasonably high operating cost…, [so the government] should think about how to maximize the social benefits that the project could bring. LRT Corp’s report shows that the railway’s operating costs totaled MOP 1.03 billion last year. While the report does not provide a breakdown of spending, the spending actually includes a MOP 5.88 billion contract awarded to MTR Corporation Ltd – the operator of the eponymous Hong Kong railway with the Hong Kong government being the main shareholder – for the operation and maintenance of the light rail train during the first 80 months of operation. In addition, Macau authorities previously revealed that the railway’s electricity bill is MOP 40 million per year. Overall, LRT Corp still managed to make a profit of MOP 47.76 million in 2020, thanks to a government grant of MOP 1.07 billion. With an operating cost of around MOP 1 billion per year, the annual passenger volume of the railway must be 100 million for the railway to break even provided the ticket price is 10 MOP each and that there is no other income than the ticket office. Given the higher passenger volume in the first two months of operation – between 33,000 and 16,000 passengers per day – when there was a free ride, Mr Lam, who is also the chair of the think tank local Macau Synergy Association, suggests that the LRT could be opened to the public for free at this time to “attract more people to take the LRT.”
“When the government decided a few years ago that the Taipa section should be operational first, the community had already suggested that the section should have been linked to Barra first to be more effective,” he says. “So the priority for the authorities now is to ensure that the construction of the Barra station is completed as planned and as soon as possible.” The operation could also be further improved, for example, passengers can now no longer use either the MacauPass stored value card or the MPay e-wallet to pay the light rail fare directly, but must first purchase a ticket. “The public does not trust the LRT given the turmoil of the past decade and more,” he notes. “The government should have a more in-depth approach to the governance and network plan of the LRT, as well as its role in public transport. According to authorities’ plans over the past two decades, the LRT should serve as the “backbone” of local public transport supplemented by other means such as buses and taxis. But that vision did not materialize – and will not do so for at least the next few years. Transport and Public Works Secretary Raimundo Arrais do Rosário admitted to the Legislative Assembly earlier this year that the LRT has so far not brought any benefit to the city, but it has not proposed any short-term initiatives. term to increase passenger volume. In the annual report, LRT Corp said it has started incorporating “commercial plans” to expand its revenue stream in addition to ticketing, and preparations have started since the fourth quarter of 2020. But there hasn’t been. news on the latest development of the subject.
“As the LRT does not connect to any of the main areas of the peninsula or to any border terminals, and there are no public transport benefits and facilities between the LRT and the bus service,” it is not surprising that the railway has not been popular with the public, ”said lawmaker Ho Ion Sang. What the operator could do in the short term is diversify its sources of income. “There could be advertisements at stations or trains, while LRT Corp could roll out limited editions of LRT-related memorabilia like cards and set up self-service kiosks for memorabilia and creative cultural products in stations “, notes the legislator. “The LRT could also work with local game operators and other merchants to organize events and campaigns.” LRT stations and trains may also feature selfie spots to attract residents and travelers. “All of this could help LRT earn extra income and reduce losses [before the government subsidy] while attracting more people to take LRT, ”he explains. “The public has always been concerned about the efficiency of light rail, which has taken so much time and money to build,” he adds. “Long-term, [the government] should expand the remaining sections of the LRT… as soon as possible with the aim of increasing passenger volume by providing them with more convenience.