Even if the authorities upgrade Malaysia’s Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway infrastructure as a cheaper alternative to the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail project, it may still take time and need substantial work, experts said.
And the move may turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish further down the road, with Singapore and Malaysia left behind while other countries pursue a regional high-speed rail network.
Their comments came after Malaysian news agency The Star reported on Monday (June 18) that the option of rejuvenating the KTM was brought to the attention of Malaysia’s Council of Eminent Persons — an advisory body recently formed by Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
This alternative plan would cost about 70 per cent less than the proposed high-speed rail service. It will also stave off the need for the Malaysian government to pay RM500 million (S$170 million) in compensation to its Singaporean counterparts, because it will not have to “renegotiate with Singapore, since the plans that have been put in place by (Singapore’s) authorities will not be disrupted”, The Star reported.
Shortly after the Malaysian general election last month, Dr Mahathir, who is leading the new government, announced that he was dropping the high-speed rail project to rein in the country’s spiralling debt.
The latest proposal, which will cost RM20 billion compared with the RM60 to RM70 billion bill for the high-speed rail, involves adding a single rail line next to the KTM’s existing double track, allowing it to cater for “standard-gauge” trains, The Star reported.
Standard-gauge tracks, which are wider than the KTM’s meter-gauge ones, allow trains to travel faster at about 200km/h, though it will still be slower than trains on the proposed high-speed rail link, which can run at 320km/h.
This means that journeys between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore will take slightly more than two hours instead of 90 minutes on the proposed high-speed rail.
Unnamed sources familiar with the proposal told The Star that there would be “minimal land acquisition (and) disruption to the existing system” should the authorities upgrade the KTM tracks.
Responding to the news, analysts contacted by TODAY said that this is not a straightforward process, and considerable work has to be done, such as flattening curves along tracks and developing land along certain areas.
Mr Phillip Peachey, engineering director with rail solutions provider Asia Rail Engineering, said: “Inevitably, where the existing route lies, I suspect that the curves are going to have to be flattened out a lot to allow the increase in speed.”
Curves along rail lines slow trains down, he explained, and this entails building extra stretches of railway tracks to reduce the sharp curves, so that trains go across the bends instead of around them.
In connection with this, the ground beneath the tracks will need stabilisation and new drainage systems. “It’s still a costly and long-winded process, (and) it will never take the place of a high-speed route,” Mr Peachey said.
There is also the long-drawn process of returning to the drawing board. “There are going to be certain areas where you are going to have to develop a whole area of land that is not directly adjacent to the existing (infrastructure)… It’s going to be some metres away. So, it’s almost like starting from scratch again,” he added.
His estimation is that such a massive revamp would take five years.
The proposed Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail was to have been up and running by the end of 2026, with the service terminating at the Jurong East terminus in Singapore.
Still, Mr Peachey said that a 130-minute journey on a refreshed KTM network would be viable for businessmen, if the trains plying between the two cities are well-equipped, with tables to allow commuters to work during the ride, for instance.
The present KTM train system, which links Singapore to Malaysian cities such as Johor Baru and Kuala Lumpur, begins and ends at the Woodlands Train Checkpoint here.
Transport economist Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences noted that the checkpoint does not provide convenient connections to Singapore’s public transport system.
If Singapore considers the proposal, it would have to study where the terminal should be, with better links to public transport and the city centre here.
“Otherwise, you would get here very quickly, and… still have to go through a fairly lengthy connection to the rest of the system in Singapore,” Dr Theseira said.
“It’s not as simple as upgrading the tracks. It will require completely redesigning and thinking about how we connect the KTM system to our city centre.”
He did say, though, that the service could still be acceptable when measured against catching a one-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur.
The trains would terminate at Kuala Lumpur Sentral station in the heart of the city, whereas air travel to the Malaysian capital is presently “much less competitive” because Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which is some distance from town, is inconvenient for travellers, he noted.
This also hinges on having a terminal at Singapore’s side that is near a public transport hub, and that the rail link is reliable. “If you have neither the speed nor the reliability, you run the real risk of ending up with a white elephant,” he added.
In the longer term, Dr Theseira foresees that many countries in the Association of South-east Asian Nations will likely benefit from an integrated high-speed rail system throughout the region in two or three decades.
When that happens, Singapore and Malaysia could be left behind if there is no network to match that. “By building a system now that is not going to be interoperable with a true high-speed rail system, we may put ourselves in the unfortunate position of, in 20 years’ time, having to reinvest in a high-speed rail,” he said.
Earlier this month, Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that the country had asked the Malaysian government via diplomatic channels to clarify its position on the high-speed rail project.
TODAY understands that the Singapore authorities are still awaiting word on the matter.
Mr Khaw said then that the Government had informed Malaysia that Singapore is continuing to incur costs on the high-speed rail project as it awaits clarification, and should the project be terminated, Malaysia may have to pay compensation, as stated in the bilateral agreement.
The two sides signed the agreement in 2016. Malaysia was then under former prime minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional government, which was ousted by the Dr Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan coalition at the May 9 general election.
Source : Today Online