Malaysia gives green light for construction to resume on East Coast Rail Link

The project was suspended when movement restrictions were put in place on March 18, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

KUALA LUMPUR - Construction work has resumed on Malaysia's biggest mega project, the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), after the government gave its approval, the project's main contractor said on Tuesday (April 28).

The RM44 billion (S$14.3 billion) project was suspended when movement restrictions were put in place on March 18 in Malaysia to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The movement control order (MCO) shut the country's borders and non-essential businesses and work.

A spokesman for China Communications Construction ECRL said: "CCC-ECRL has received approval from the Malaysian government to resume work on some of the sites involving tunnels and viaducts."

He told The Straits Times: "The company has put in place the necessary health and safety measures to ensure the safety of its staff and sub-contractors at these sites. Intensified work schedule has also been slated to catch up with lost time due to the MCO."

News on the restarting of the ECRL surfaced on the same day that International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali said the government will allow several economic sectors which are already operating at half-capacity during the MCO to ramp up their work to full capacity from Wednesday (April 29).

But he said that these companies must comply with government guidelines for their respective sectors, such as social distancing measures.

Sectors allowed to operate at half-capacity during the MCO included machinery and aerospace industries, export-oriented automotive industry, several types of construction projects such as tunnelling works and slope maintenance, along with hardware, electrical and electronic shops.

But some had to first apply for exemption from the MCO with the trade ministry.

On Tuesday too, the Health Ministry's director-general, Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, said Malaysia is in the "recovery phase" of the pandemic.

The number of new cases daily has been in double digits in the last two weeks - a far cry from the triple digits in March and early April.

"We are now in a recovery phase. We have been able to flatten the curve and have prevented the exponential surge of cases," he said.

In February, ECRL project owner Malaysia Rail Link said construction was not affected by the outbreak although some 1,000 workers are from mainland China, as most of them had not gone back to China for Chinese New Year.

Work on the China-led project was suspended in July 2018 after the Pakatan Harapan government, which assumed office in May that year, complained about its exorbitant price tag.

In April 2019, Tun Daim Zainuddin, who was an to adviser to PH, convinced the government to resume the project with China Communication Construction Company in a new deal costing RM44 billion, down from the original RM65.5 billion agreed by the Najib Razak government.

At present, the project is 15 per cent completed after work resumed in July last year on tunnels and viaducts along its route in Terengganu to Pahang.

As part of the new deal, China also agreed to a 50-50 joint venture to operate the 640km line across Peninsular Malaysia, reducing Kuala Lumpur's financial risks. The previous arrangement was for Malaysia to shoulder the entire cost of operation and maintenance.

Expected to be completed by December 2026, the ECRL will see the journey from Kelantan's state capital, Kota Baru, to Putrajaya taking just four hours - about half the time needed to travel by car.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission said last month it had received a report over a possible abuse of power in relation to the rail line.

This came about after the change in government following the collapse of the PH government at end-February.

According to a source quoted by Bernama national news agency, the complainant claimed that the project should cost only RM30 billion instead of RM44 billion as five proposed stations were taken out from the new alignment.

The complainant, who is not named, also questioned the role of Mr Daim, the former chairman of the Council of Eminent Persons, in negotiating its revival.

Malaysia's total number of Covid-19 infections hit 5,851 on Tuesday (April 28), with 100 deaths. It recorded 31 new infections and 4,032 recovered cases.

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