Taking a bold rail vision forward

The proposed high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore has to avoid multiple bends if it is to live up to the promise of a 90-minute journey. A similar arrow-straight approach must guide the planning, execution and running of the system.

Policy twists and turns, political manoeuvring and corporate jinking for profit can derail the best-laid plans, as many nations have learnt. For example, the lack of symmetry of purpose was one reason why a soaring bridge to replace the Causeway morphed into a crooked bridge and was - thankfully - scuttled eight years ago.

Much has changed since then, of course, and the Joint Ministerial Committee tasked with the rail project, mooted by Malaysian premier Najib Razak, has been able to achieve momentum from healthy bilateral relations and the strong backing of both prime ministers. Even so, the complexities are not being underestimated. As PM Lee Hsien Loong noted: "Officials have been working hard and there are many items here to discuss and settle: the design, the financing, the governance, the operations, the security and immigration requirements, the legal arrangements."

A strategic development set to be a game-changer calls for a different cast of mind. It has to be viewed as a benefit for both present-day citizens and a legacy for future generations with an unswerving focus on enhanced connectivity, affordability of trips and overall viability. Ensuring that safe, speedy and seamless travel remains a hallmark of the system will call for close cooperation that must endure over the terms of many leaders and administrators in the years to come.

The best assurance of that is when core purposes and agreed modalities are institutionalised and not subject to the vagaries of politics over time. For example, if ground pressure later mounts for more stops to be added to the line, this would not just dilute the time advantage offered but also the energy efficiency of the system. Further delays might result if inefficiencies creep into an envisaged single border checkpoint. If intolerable, there is a risk of ridership levels dipping and affecting economic sustainability. To guard against this, one should crystallise and uphold foundational values and public expectations linked to this potentially transformative rail connection.

Decisions taken now will have an impact on outcomes at various stages. Hence, the importance of properly communicating details of technical assessments, projected costs, financing plans, operational standards and the economic and social benefits offered. Doing so will help bolster the case for clearing roadblocks that might arise along the way and help ensure that the project remains on the fast track.