EYE ON SINGAPORE

Pot of gold at the end of the rail line?

Three sites - Tuas West, Jurong East and city centre - are in contention to be the terminus for the Singapore end of the planned high-speed rail link to Kuala Lumpur. A lot rides on the eventual choice.

IMAGINE a mode of transport that almost halves the current fastest door-to- door travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

That is the exciting prospect offered by the KL-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project, where instead of 4.2 hours by air, you will be whisked city to city in 2.5 hours. These times include airport/station transfers, wait time and immigration clearance.

Because of this sheer speed and accessibility, the KL-Singapore HSR - which can be up and running by 2025 if work starts next year - is expected to change profoundly the way people in both countries live, work and play. An HSR links up cities far more effectively than planes can.

Singapore has shortlisted three possible sites for its terminus, each with its own potential - and pitfalls.

Until now, the possibility of an HSR line linking two countries that were once one - an idea bandied about for three decades - remained vague, the way cross- border projects (not just those involving Singapore and Malaysia) tend to be. But developments are firming up. The choice of site for the Singapore terminus will be announced when ministers on both sides meet at the Leaders' Retreat here, said to be tentatively slated for the end of next month.

Singapore has thrown up three possible sites for the terminus: Tuas West, Jurong East and the city centre. Here are the pros and cons for each.

Tuas West

IT MAY seem like the boondocks right now, but this area is slated to become an enormous hub for trade and industry.

There is plenty of land there, so an HSR terminus - which requires quite a lot of space - can be built without much difficulty. And because it is currently an area of sparse development, builders have a fairly blank canvas to work with. This saves costs, as there would be no or minimal land acquisition and diversion of existing infrastructure required.

The terminus can link up with the MRT Tuas West Extension for relatively painless transfers to the rest of the island.

  • Freight transport an option: A future MRT line will also extend towards Tuas South, and this could form a link to Singapore's new port location.

Indeed, while HSR lines are predominantly associated with high- speed passenger commutes, there are interesting developments to suggest that HSR can be an attractive option for freight.

Freight can be moved during off-peak passenger hours; or concurrently, using well-timed schedules that allow passenger and cargo trains to share the same line safely.

If the KL-Singapore HSR can double as a freight service, freight can subsidise operating costs, and consequently, passenger fares. Another cost upside of Tuas is that the line need not go underground in this non-residential district.

The downside is that Tuas has an industrial setting, and is quite unglamorous for an HSR terminus. And, of course, it is far from the Central Business District (CBD) and the hip Marina Bay area, making cross-border rail commutes - to seal deals or to wine and dine - several stops short of chic and seamless.

Jurong East

SINGAPORE is positioning this precinct to be the "jewel in the west", and plans are already taking shape to turn the once sleepy hollow into a vibrant "lake district" in which to work, live and play. Shopping malls have sprouted (seemingly overnight), and hotels are being erected, recreation areas zoned, a hospital is near completion and, of course, dozens of housing projects are in the pipeline.

The existing Chinese and Japanese gardens are also being merged to create Jurong Lake Gardens. Even a highway is being moved to free up more land for waterfront housing.

Besides the East-West MRT Line that serves the area now, the future Cross Island Line and Jurong Region Line will improve connections to other parts of Singapore.

While not as sparse as Tuas West, there are open spaces where an HSR terminus can be built. And unlike Tuas, the image of the transformed Jurong East fits in nicely with the high-tech, wind-chiselled picture of an HSR.

Detractors may say it is still a distance from the city centre, where the action is. But in the not-too-distant future, Jurong East might have its own fair share of action. An HSR terminus there will complete its transformation.

Downside? While it could become as cool as New York's rejuvenated Meatpacking District, it is no Wall Street. For that, we still have to look south.

City centre

THE undisputed financial centre of Singapore is Raffles Place. To have an HSR stop there will undoubtedly add to the downtown buzz.

That the fast-developing Marina Bay area is just next door adds to the attraction. For a traveller, nothing beats coming out of a station and strolling over to his final destination.

Indeed, HSR lines the world over tend to link city centres. London to Paris; Zurich to Brussels; Taipei to Kaohsiung, and so on.

But not all of them are right smack in the middle of the city. For instance, the Tokyo-Osaka leg of Japan's Shinkansen stops 3km outside Osaka's city centre. This apparently was to avoid the engineering difficulties of running the HSR into the heart of the city.

If Singapore were to build its terminus in the city centre, where would it do it?

Well, the old Tanjong Pagar railway station would be nice, as it will be in the middle of an intense mixed-use district once the port moves to Tuas.

The facade of the grand old building, as well as some elements of its interior, can be retained, and it can be a wonderful link between the past and the future.

Station platforms will have to be underground, as an HSR line running into the city will no doubt have to be below ground because of space constraints.

Largely because of this, a city terminus will be the costliest option. Excavations will have to be deep to avoid a congested subterranean area filled with utilities, pilings, basement floors, and MRT tunnels. It will also have to be cavernous. This will add to the final bill, which can easily be five times that of Tuas and three times that of Jurong East.

Expense versus benefits

A TERMINUS in Marina Bay would be a good compromise. It is central, but there is still plenty of space above ground for an HSR station. There is even enough space for train stabling.

Yes, it would be expensive, prime land. Too precious to be set aside for a train station, some say. Yet, it is exactly what Hong Kong has done.

Prime real estate in West Kowloon has been set aside for its HSR terminus. The decision whipped up plenty of controversy, but decision-makers believe that future benefits outweigh the hefty initial capital outlay.

Once it is built, people from Guangzhou can zip to Hong Kong for dinner and the theatre, and still return home before midnight. It will allow Hong Kong to tap more effectively into a population of 60 million in the Pearl River Delta region.

Hopefully, policymakers here think likewise. They have to believe the HSR line will benefit Singapore as much as it will Malaysia - if not now, then in the future.

Academics have suggested that HSR lines create a so-called "straw effect", where economic value flows towards the strongest city along a line. It has not been proven conclusively but if true, which city along the KL-Singapore HSR will benefit most from the straw effect?

On that score, Kuala Lumpur is making sure it has a convincing "pull" at its end of the line. It is siting its terminus in Bandar Malaysia - an ambitious project that transforms the old Sungei Besi area (3km from KL's financial district) into a dynamic, connected township.

Which of Singapore's three choices trumps Bandar Malaysia?

christan@sph.com.sg