PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A cheaper option to upgrade the railway link 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 upgrading 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 about 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 the country's rail company Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).
Under the cheaper option however, travelling time between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore will be 130 minutes, compared to 90 minutes under the HSR.
However, consultants said that the travelling time might be reduced further with new locomotives that can travel at a higher speed without compromising safety.
This could be possible if the government were to allow third parties to operate rail lines owned by KTM.
"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 over RM1 trillion (S$338 billion) 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.
Sources said central to the upgrading plans of the existing KTM network was to improve the existing double track infrastructure whereby it could cater for standard gauge and meter 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 meter gauge, which is the existing infrastructure," said a source.
Meter 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. They also provide more stability. The travelling speed with standard gauge trains is about 200km per hour.
The HSR was planned to run on a completely new alignment and travel at a speed of 320km per hour.
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 KL International Airport (KLIA) to Singapore, a venture that could 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 projects that had been taken off the shelf 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 Malaysia 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 in office. High on the council's list is how the government can save costs, 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.