Making haste, but slowly, on travel links

THE ex-ante decision-making processes undertaken today by Singapore and Malaysia related to major transport infrastructure will have to stand up to ex- post analyses of costs and benefits years from now. Hence the need for thoroughness and financial rigour to ensure optimal outcomes are achieved by both sides. Against this backdrop, work groups have made "steady progress", as reported at the leaders' retreat this week. There's no rushing the ambitious high-speed rail project in particular because of its technical complexity.

The centrepiece of efforts to enhance travel links, the high-speed rail connection is said to offer great potential for significant changes in economic and social behaviour. However, technology alone provides no assurance of the critical mass needed to justify huge expenses. Other essential pieces of the planning jigsaw must fit well too, like the way networks and operating systems are integrated so clearances and transfers, for example, are not intolerably long. Any lack of coordination could affect service reliability too.

Mass mobility on a game-changing scale will also hinge on the breadth and flexibility of the connections developed. For example, the undersea train link from London to Paris which once captured the public imagination is now just one of the options considered by travellers - indeed, for a group, trips by car are still deemed by London's Telegraph as "almost without question the best deal of all, no matter when you travel". With people taking into account cost, timings, convenience and the sociability of choices, a range of seamless travel options would be demanded. This is reflected in the cross-border initiatives being worked on. These include an MRT extension to link Woodlands North and Johor Baru, a third bridge crossing, faster clearance at the Causeway and Tuas checkpoints, and improved ferry services between Changi and Tanjung Belungkor in Johor.

Alongside planning sound connections, the challenge for both sides is to shape a workable model for the funding and cost control of the mega project. Operating principles agreed upon, based on the logic of the marketplace and best international practices, ought to be institutionalised to insulate long-term projects from the vagaries of politics over the terms of various governments.

Projects are more likely to be entrenched when their value is broadly accepted by the public, especially if infrastructural improvement also gives a boost to local development. For example, the siting of the high-speed rail terminus in Jurong East will help in the transformation of the area, which includes turning it into a second Central Business District. For such a key role, right connections will matter.