PUTRAJAYA - Five years after its launch, Malaysia's East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) is facing delays once again as Selangor disagrees with the proposed alignment of the 665km project aimed at connecting ports on both coasts of the peninsula.
Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong held a press conference on Monday (April 5) to address concerns over cost, environmental impact and effectiveness of the RM50 billion (S$16.25 billion) track, having failed to reach a resolution after at least 37 federal-state meetings in the past 10 months.
"The Northern Alignment will increase convenience and avoid double handling. This is a land bridge that connects port to port," he said.
The Chinese-backed project was first announced in 2016 by then premier Najib Razak but came under fire from critics over the RM55 billion price tag and unfavourable financing, with the tender handed to state-owned China Communications Construction Co (CCCC).
Pakatan Harapan (PH) then revised the deal after it defeated Barisan Nasional (BN) at the 2018 election, eventually launching a longer but cheaper Southern Alignment in 2019 to connect Kota Baru in north-eastern Kelantan with Kuantan Port in the east and Port Klang on the Malacca Strait.
But after PH collapsed in February 2020, the Northern Alignment was revived by the Muhyiddin Yassin administration - which includes most of the parties that formed BN prior to 2018 - with improvements and savings, according to Datuk Seri Wee, the Malaysian Chinese Association president.
The changes include extending the line to the doorstep of both Westport and Northport in Port Klang to increase convenience of cargo handling and ensure that the Klang Gates (Gombak) Quartz Ridge - which is up for inscription as a United Nations heritage site - is undisturbed, by designing an alignment that traverses an existing road.
According to Dr Wee, the improved plan will result in 26 million tonnes of cargo being handled by the ECRL in its first year of operation - now slated for 2027 - or nearly triple the 9 million using the Southern Alignment, while passenger traffic will also increase by a quarter to five million people in this same period.
Selangor disputes the efficacy of these changes, resulting in the final western stretch being delayed and costing taxpayers RM1.25 million daily, according to Putrajaya.
Malaysia's richest state, which is still controlled by PH, insists the Southern Alignment is superior because "it would open more new economic areas, apart from avoiding disruption to water catchment areas".
"The old route has long been rejected, and we have completed all studies on the Southern Alignment. The issue of expediting or delaying was due to the federal government's decision to revert to the Northern Alignment," Selangor Chief Minister Amirudin Shari said last week.
"In our view, if we want to expedite the project, then use the Southern Alignment because everything is complete."
State governments in Malaysia have final say over land use. Although the federal government could invoke the Land Acquisition Act, citing national interest, it would likely lead to a lengthy court battle.
Dr Wee told reporters on Monday that the Northern Alignment would be cheaper than the RM46 billion southern track as the RM50 billion bill for it includes the RM5 billion Serendah Bypass - which Selangor also agrees to - that will shift the existing cargo route on Malaysian Railways (KTM) trains out of Kuala Lumpur's city centre.
"Right now, dangerous materials like chemicals and cement enter the city. This takes 1 hour and 45 minutes. The Serendah Bypass is better in terms of safety," he said.
The ECRL, which is 21 per cent completed, is one of several megaprojects that have been impacted by Malaysia's shifting political landscape in recent years. The high-speed rail to Singapore was called off at the end of last year, having also been up for review after the watershed 2018 election.