SINGAPORE - Singapore and Malaysia held a ceremony on Thursday (July 30) to resume work on the cross-border Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link between Woodlands and Johor Baru, one day ahead of a final deadline following multiple postponements to the project.
Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung and his Malaysian counterpart Wee Ka Siong marked the official resumption in a ceremony at the Causeway witnessed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Several key changes have been made to the project, which both sides agreed on.
The RTS Link will now be a standalone light rail transit (LRT) system, instead of using the same trains and systems as Singapore's Thomson-East Coast MRT Line (TEL), said a joint statement issued by both countries.
The cross-border link's capacity remains unchanged at up to 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction, the statement said.
As a result, the 4km RTS Link will no longer use the existing TEL depot at Mandai. A new depot will be built in Wadi Hana, Johor Baru, Malaysia.
Separately, Malaysia has changed its infrastructure company (InfraCo) from Prasarana Malyasia Bhd to Malaysia Rapid Transit System Sdn Bhd, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mass Rapid Transit Corporation Sdn Bhd.
The Land Transport Authority remains as Singapore's InfraCo.
These entities will fund, build, own, maintain and renew the rail infrastructure and systems in their respective territories, up to the international boundary.
Fares will be set by the operating company, and be determined closer to the start of passenger service.
The ceremony, held at the international boundary line on the Causeway due to Covid-19 travel restrictions,was broadcast live on PM Lee's Facebook page.
The new expected operation date for the cross-border project will be the end of 2026, instead of end-2024. When it is ready, the RTS Link will connect passengers between Johor's Bukit Chagar terminus station and the Singapore terminus in Woodlands North.
PM Lee said the RTS Link is a constructive and valuable project, not only in itself but also as it shows cooperation continues to go on with Malaysia despite difficulties like the Covid-19 pandemic.
"It will make commuting easier; workers can come to Singapore to work, Singaporeans going to Johor or going to other parts of Malaysia can take the RTS Link instead of using the Causeway," he said. "It should ease the congestion, and make it more convenient for people to go back and forth."
Both sides said in a joint statement following the event that the RTS Link will continue to feature co-location of customs, immigration and quarantine facilities, so passengers have to clear immigration only once, at the point of departure.
The two countries also reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring that the rail link will be well-integrated with local transport networks. The Singapore terminus is at Woodlands North, which will serve 32 stations from Woodlands to Bedok by 2024.
The joint statement noted that three key agreements to resume the project have been successfully concluded.
First, the deal to amend the RTS Link Bilateral Agreement between the governments of both countries.
Second, a joint venture agreement between Singapore's SMRT RTS and Malaysia's Prasarana RTS Operations Sdn Bhd, to form RTS Operations - the operating company.
Third, a concession agreement to appoint RTS Operations as the operating company for the first 30-year concession period.
The ceremony at the Causeway was also attended by former Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan, who led the Republic's negotiating team that worked to bring the stalled project back on track, as well as key ministers from both countries.
The rail link is expected to provide much needed relief to the Causeway. Before the coronavirus pandemic, over 300,000 people crossed the 1km-long bridge every day, including about 100,000 Malaysians who commuted daily between Singapore and Malaysia.
The signing ushers in a new chapter for the 4km rail link, which was formally agreed to by leaders of both countries a decade ago but has seen a number of delays in recent years.
Both countries signed a binding agreement to build the link in January 2018, but key project deadlines were missed after the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad came to power less than five months later.
The deadline to come to new terms was subsequently pushed back four times on the request of Malaysia. The last suspension, to end-July, was due to factors such as Covid-19 and Malaysia's change of government.
The switch from an MRT to an LRT system is expected to reduce Malaysia's tab from RM4.93 billion (S$1.6 billion) to an estimated RM3.16 billion, the Malaysian government said last October when then Prime Minister Mahathir revealed details of its revised proposal.
Experts have said an LRT system would be cheaper to build, as it is a simpler and smaller system.
But costs in the long run may be higher should the RTS Link reach the planned capacity of 10,000 passengers an hour in one direction, due to wear and tear and maintenance expenses.
Said the joint statement: "The successful resumption of the RTS Link project underscores the deep and enduring bilateral relationship between both countries, and the collective desire to strengthen our win-win partnership.
"When completed, the RTS Link will ease Causeway congestion, improve connectivity, foster people-to-people ties and generate shared economic and social benefits."
PM Lee said he managed to catch up briefly with Tan Sri Muhyiddin at the ceremony, and hopes they will find a way to hold the annual Singapore-Malaysia leaders' retreat this year.
"We are two close neighbours and there's a lot that we need to talk together about, not least how we can get a safe flow of people between the two territories," he said.
Asked about the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project, PM Lee said both countries are still in discussions.
"I hope we'll be able to work something out, because the basic thought behind it is that Singapore and Malaysia are two major economies... and the more we can make it convenient, I think the more business we can do and the closer the two territories will be in terms of rapport, in terms of cooperation and friendship."
Malaysia had asked to extend the suspension period of the 350km rail project till May this year, and a second extension till the end of the year, given its change of government.
Singapore agreed to further suspend the project to discuss Malaysia's proposed changes to it.