Cheaper option to high-speed rail proposed to KL govt, say sources

Suggestion involves upgrading existing tracks to cater to trains than can travel at higher speeds

PETALING JAYA • A cheaper option to upgrade the railway line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore has been mooted to the Malaysian government, say sources, at less than half the cost of a planned high-speed rail link between the two countries.

The proposal involves upgra-ding existing rail infrastructure, which will cost an estimated RM20 billion (S$6.8 billion), compared to the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail (HSR) project inked in 2016, which was expected to cost between RM60 billion and RM70 billion.

The proposal will also save the Malaysian government some RM500 million in potential compensation it will have to pay Singapore if it scraps the HSR, as the republic's ongoing preparations for the HSR will not be disrupted.

According to sources, Malaysia's top advisory body, the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), has been briefed on the alternative plan that utilises existing double-track infrastructure of national rail company Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).

However, under the cheaper option, travelling time between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore will be 130 minutes, compared with 90 minutes under the HSR.

Consultants said that the travelling time might be reduced further with new locomotives that are able to travel at a higher speed without compromising on safety. This could happen if the government allowed third parties to operate rail lines owned by KTM.

  • RM20b Estimated cost of upgrading existing rail infrastructure, according to the proposal.

    RM60b-RM70b Expected cost of the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail project.

"The third parties would be prepared to invest in better locomotives and run operations on a commercial basis. Travel time can potentially be reduced," said a consultant.

The lower costs would be welcome news for the new Pakatan Harapan administration, which is reviewing mega projects entered into by the previous government as it grapples with more than RM1 trillion in national debt.

"Cost will be shaved by more than RM50 billion, which is 70 per cent lower compared with (building) the HSR. This does not include land acquisition cost and possible cost overruns incurred by the HSR project," said a source.

"The upgrading of the existing railway tracks would involve minimal land acquisition, minimal disruption to existing system and complement the entire national railway network. It would not lead to a duplication of railway lines," the source said.

According to these sources, the proposal requires the existing KTM double-track network to be upgraded to cater to standard-gauge and metre-gauge trains. This can be done by putting up a single line next to the existing double track.

"Effectively, the tracks will be able to cater for trains running on standard gauge and metre gauge, which is the existing infrastructure," said a source.

Metre-gauge tracks are narrower, which causes the train to travel at a slower speed. In contrast, standard-gauge tracks are wider and allow trains to travel at a higher speed of about 200kmh. They also provide more stability.

The HSR was planned to run on a completely new alignment, with its trains travelling at 320kmh.

Sources said that upgrading the existing infrastructure would be cheaper compared with the suggestion by some quarters to extend the Express Rail Link (ERL) from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to Singapore, a venture that could potentially cost at least RM30 billion.

"The suggested ERL extension plan would involve a completely new alignment from KLIA and there is not much of a difference in travelling time compared with the plan to upgrade the existing infrastructure," said a source.

The HSR is one of two rail projects that have been shelved for the time being under the new government led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The other is phase three of the Mass Rapid Transit project.

Dr Mahathir had said that the distance between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore is short at only 350km, and if the existing railway infrastructure is upgraded, it can improve travel time significantly.

The CEP is helping the government fulfil its election promises within its first 100 days of office. High on the council's list is how the government can save cost, without compromising on quality, and improve governance as well as the handling of public finances.

Public spending has been constrained after the new government delivered on its election pledge to abolish the goods and services tax and unearthed the RM1 trillion federal debt.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2018, with the headline 'Cheaper option to high-speed rail proposed to KL govt, say sources'. Print Edition | Subscribe