MALAYSIA’S high-speed rail (HSR) connecting Kuala Lumpur to Singapore is on track, with a new company known as MyHSR Corp expected to take the lead in making the project a reality.
The company’s first chief executive Mohd Nur Ismail Mohamed Kamal speaks about what he has in mind for what may be South-East Asia’s first bullet train.
Formerly with the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD, Suruhanjaya Pengangkutan Awam Darat), Mohd Nur was its chief executive since its beginning in 2010 before taking over MyHSR on Sept 1.
Now supported by a skeleton crew and only doors away from his previous office, Mohd Nur implies that Malaysia has big dreams for not only its own HSR but also the country’s economic development as well.
Among these would be the development of HSR stations and towns within a 5km radius around them, as well as immigration counters from Malaysia and Singapore in both countries.
Read on to find out more about the upcoming 330km project, which is expected to be opened for international tender late next year.
What will your immediate and long-term duties as MyHSR Corp CEO be?
MyHSR is set up to continue SPAD’s good work in HSR planning into the tender phase and eventually into construction. MyHSR will be the project owner and developer of the project, and SPAD will remain as policymaker and regulator and continue on in active bilateral engagement with Singapore.
My immediate task is to set up the office and operations and to make sure that we have the right talent and expertise to carry out the project.
We have identified five work streams which are essential for setting up the HSR. The first is the G-to-G (government- to-government) support for SPAD in the bilateral discussions with Singapore – this is to finalise the technical, commercial and bilateral agreement.
Second is to finalise the station and the alignment. This will include performing a detailed environmental impact assessment, social impact assessment, soil investigation, and to perform land acquisition.
Third is to prepare for the tender process. This is still being finalised, and will depend on the final operating structure that will be agreed on by the Malaysian and Singaporean Governments.
Fourth is to look at socioeconomic development opportunities to maximise the benefits of having HSR services and stations along the corridor. So we’re looking at local authorities and state governments, to make sure that the economic benefits happen in a planned way which will attract investments, employment and new, high-value industries.
Fifth is engagement, a need to make sure Malaysians see the benefits from and the merit of the project, and convince them in a way that is in line with international best practices – that this is not just a transport project but also an economic development project.
What do you mean by project owner and developer?
It will be similar to MRT Corp. They are the project owner and developer for the MRT in the Klang Valley with aspects of operations separated out. Similar to that, operations can be tendered and run by other companies.
What kind of role will MyHSR have in this project?
There are a lot of factors on which we need to be on the same page with the Singaporean Government, and that is being done with the G-to-G negotiations under the joint minister’s committee (JMC). The JMC is under (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department) Datuk Seri Abdul Wahid Omar and Johor Mentri Besar (Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin) as co-chairmen.
The JMC was first set up to facilitate the Iskandar Development. Since it already exists, we’re tagging along for HSR negotiations, which requires intense negotiations with Singapore on how we agree on certain aspects of HSR operations in the future in terms of safety, security, customs, immigration, the alignment, stations, how do we join (the alignment) together, if there’s any express or transit services, the control aspect of it, and guarding against security breaches.
The technical discussions are being led by SPAD on our side and the Transport Ministry and the Land Transport Authority on the Singapore side. All this while, SPAD has been leading the charge, so with the setting up of MyHSR Corp, we’ll be beefing up on the technical expertise of the running of railways and land acquisition development.
Something of a technical support?
For a G-to-G interface, it’s still being led by SPAD. We are taking over the support role and expertise.
Beyond that, the basis of the implementation needs to be ironed out through this bilateral agreement. The G-to-G discussions are the starting point just to get certain basics agreed upon. After that phase, that’s when we come out more in front.
Once the bilateral agreement is drawn up, then we will know each of the parts we have to follow. For instance, we know already the CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine complex) is going to be a co-location. We know that Singapore and Malaysia will have immigration counters in Kuala Lumpur, Nusajaya and Singapore.
After that you’ll just decide on the technical details?
Our full-time job is to be the project developer. This role requires us to go through the regulatory process to come up with a railway scheme, environmental and social impact assessments, to do (land acquisition) ... soil investigation. That is the role of a project developer.
We will also have to look at commercial developments for our terminus in Bandar Malaysia, our stations in Ayer Keroh, Muar, Batu Pahat and Nusajaya. Besides looking at broader policy on how to develop the whole zone around the station, we are looking at specific areas inside and on top of the stations for the project development as well.
There will be some portions which will be owned by the project where we’ll have full responsibility for the development.
For a 5km radius outside the station, more thought is needed in terms of planning and regulatory support of the states’ planning aspirations in taking advantage of the HSR station’s presence.
Five kilometres? That much?
We might not develop the area ourselves, but the framework of the development (such as) what should go in where or what incentives to put in.
Because the idea of a high-speed rail is not to come up with a station, end of story.
It’s about catalysing growth and economic development. It’s about changing the economic make up of what we do now, and bringing in activities to support the (national) aspiration to become a high income country.
For example, instead of just making furniture in Muar (a primary industry there), we now have an opportunity to look at what value-added activities we can put there. Now there will be the mobility to be in Singapore or in Kuala Lumpur within, let’s say, 40 minutes, as well as local supporting transit systems which have to support the existence of HSR stations.
We will have to put in policies to encourage certain types of investments and human capital attractions to develop certain types of industries.
When I attended a seminar by the Koreans here (on their interest in the HSR), I saw their analysis of the proposed stations. They were looking at whether industries in some of these places, like Muar, could be made better.
Precisely. We’re not doing it (the HSR) in a vacuum. One of the considerations is to look at what is existing out there and what is being planned.
For example, Pagoh near Muar is being developed as an education hub. HSR stations should incorporate the education hub as well as existing industries and future plans that Johor has for Muar.
In order to get there in terms of vision, we have to ask what necessary conditions need to happen. That’s why we are looking at the socioeconomic plan as part of our role, and are persuading the Government that those conditions need to happen.
There’s no point in building an industrial park near the station with no other policies to support it. It’ll become a ghost town.... Just because you build it, doesn’t mean it’s (development) going to come.
This was explained to me when they built the Tokyo-Osaka Line (in Japan). One of the stations was the Gifu-Hashima station (see The Star’s story at tinyurl.com/oh97fdk); a lot of other stations flourished, but Gifu-Hashima is, to this day, barely developed.
We saw the same thing in other countries when little was done. Some stations are just for people to come back and sleep and nothing else happens. It’s a wasted opportunity, because you can create an attraction at each of these stops. But it has to be done with proper plans and policies in mind, you cannot leave it to chance.
Will the tender for the HSR go live in 2016?
We expect to do it in possibly two stages. We anticipate to kick off the pre-qualifications in the middle of next year. The timeline including the tender will be made known after the bilateral agreement (is ready).
And the second stage?
The actual tender is not yet set, but it will be towards the later part of next year.
Will MyHSR also decide which country will build the HSR?
The decision will be done through this international open tender, but our job is to incorporate the aspirations and needs of the commuters in the future and translate that into specifications. The technical and service level specifications will be done by us after getting input from all the stakeholders. This will be translated into the tender document.
So MyHSR won’t be the one deciding?
No. Our role is to ensure that we have the best possible value out of this project, looking not just at tender value but also the overall life-cycle cost of the system. Just because it costs less now doesn’t mean that 50 years down the road we will have to spend more money on a cheap system.
So it would be right to say MyHSR would be the resident expert on the HSR?
This is what we’re developing (laughs).
Who will MyHSR report to?
We are an agency set up under the Finance Ministry. But in terms of project delivery, conception and design, and commuting of project, that is to the government as a whole, meaning we will table either to the Economic Council or the Cabinet depending on the issue. Regulation will be under SPAD.
Do you see any legislation being drafted in relation to HSR, such as with the SPAD Act?
Right now, SPAD is in the process of amending the PAD (Pengangkutan Awam Darat, or Land Public Transport) Act, and that will include some aspects of future railways that will be built in the country.
As of now, there is no immediate plan to create an HSR Act, but in my personal view, that will be the cleanest way to do it in the future once we have the bilateral agreement in place.
It will be easier for future HSR implementations that way. So the act would not just cover the KL-SG line, but if we were ever to consider eastern or northern HSR lines, then the act would help us tremendously on how to move forward on that.
What are some of the challenges and issues that MyHSR will have to work out?
My immediate challenge is to build up Malaysia’s talent pool... There’s a clear need for expertise to look at things that are unique to HSR. With the MRT, we recruited foreign experts, so I foresee this is something I have to do as well to beef up MyHSR’s technical expertise.
On funds, affordability is also a key consideration, whether that would influence the project structure. (We are) helping the Government think through what all the implications of the alternatives on the table are right now.
Will MyHSR run the HSR when it is completed?
It all depends on the final project structure that the Government decides on. Depending on whether it will be a private initiative, public-private partnership (PPP) or completely Government-owned, MyHSR Corp may have to evolve depending on the structure the Government decides on.
If it’s going to be Government-owned, which other countries have done, and then privatised their systems later, then MyHSR Corp will continue on to (handle) construction.
If a PPP is chosen, then MyHSR Corp may be the nucleus that will be absorbed by a private consortium that wins the bid and then go on to construction. It’s going to be a long journey, so we need the continuous support and perseverance from not only Malaysians but also the Government.
Will MyHSR be doing anything else in the near future?
We will be hosting a competition for the design of our company logo which will be opened up to the public with attractive prizes for the best 20 designs. Interested readers can find more info at myhsr.com.my.