MALAYSIA is naturally blessed with scenic coastlines, beautiful reefs and deep turquoise waters. More so when we venture out to our east coast. Covering a total area of 66,000sq km, the east coast, however, is more than just a holiday paradise.
Since the launch of the East Coast Economic Region (ECER) in 2007, the region, which covers the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang as well as the district of Mersing in Johor, has undergone rapid development and transformation.
Projects such as the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park (MCKIP), Pekan Automotive Park, Pasir Mas Halal Park and Kemaman Heavy Industry Park have created new employment and business opportunities for the people in the region.
Despite the steady socioeconomic growth attributed to these ventures, the Government is aware of the need for a transport backbone to drive sustainable development and more importantly, provide an efficient link to Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley, where most of our economic and commercial activity takes place.
This crucial backbone is known as the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL).
Traversing the coast of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang before cutting through the central region of Selangor, the ECRL will be implemented in two phases.
The first phase stretches some 600.3km, from Wakaf Bharu in Kelantan to the Integrated Transport Terminal in Gombak (ITT Gombak), serving townships such as Bentong, Chukai, Kuala Terengganu and Gambang.
The second phase, which is in the planning stage, measures about 88km and covers the stretch from ITT Gombak to the 12th busiest port in the world – Port Klang.
Supporting existing development on the east coast
To date, at least 25% of all traded goods and 25% of all oil that travels by sea rely on the Straits of Malacca. Established as one of the most important trade routes in the world, the 890km stretch is also notorious for being narrow and considered a major shipping bottleneck.
The ECRL seeks to change this through the creation of a channel across Peninsular Malaysia. This would give freight transporters better options instead of relying on the overcrowded Straits of Malacca to transport their goods.
The ECRL will link several key east coast industrial hubs – Kertih Port, Kemaman Port and Kuantan Port, to name a few – directly to the west coast of the peninsula.
Concurrently, the Government and private sector have already invested some RM4bil to upgrade and expand the Kuantan Port into a deep-water port.
Aimed at complementing the ECRL to provide future users with a more seamless route, the port will double its capacity to 52 million in handling freight weight tonnes (FWT) when the work is completed in 2018. It will also allow the port to accommodate vessels up to 200,000 deadweight tonnage (DWT).
With the ECRL in place, it is estimated that the shipments of products and commodities to East Asian countries will be reduced by hundreds of kilometres, thus saving precious shipping time and cost.
Strengthening tourism and creating a safer, more convenient way to travel
The ECRL will also serve as an inter-city passenger rail, with a fleet of 11 eight-car train sets planned. With each train able to accommodate up to 600 passengers, the intent here is to open up a coastal tourism belt along the east coast and at the same time fortify existing tourist destinations’ potential through better access.
For instance, the ECRL will be connected to the KTM East Coast Line which has a stop in Jerantut – the main gateway to one of Malaysia’s key eco-tourism destinations, Taman Negara.
Tourism aside, the ECRL will provide an attractive option for individuals travelling back to their hometowns on the east coast during festive periods and school holidays. Passengers will be able to travel end-to-end (on the Wakaf Bharu-ITT Gombak line and on to Port Klang) in only about four hours, compared to at least 12 hours by road currently.
Fostering inclusive growth
When phase 1 of the project is completed in 2024, the ECRL will spur an unprecedented level of development in Malaysia in an inclusive manner. The Government has made a promise of achieving high-income nation status by 2020. We are on track, but this must be done with the assurance that all pockets of our nation achieve growth across the board.
This is a necessary process as this would ensure that growth is sustainable and that everyone will enjoy Malaysia’s high-income stature.
I strongly believe that the ECRL will open up more opportunities and provide equal footing to entrepreneurs and Small and Medium Enterprises on the east coast.
Based on projections, it is expected that this key socioeconomic enabler will create a Gross Domestic Product impact worth RM50.1bil. Additionally, the three coastal states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang are projected to grow by an average of 1.5% more annually.
In the bigger picture, the ECRL will serve as a catalyst to bridge the economic gap between the east and west coasts of Peninsular Malaysia. This will fulfil the strategic objective of the National Land Public Transport Master Plan, ensuring the nation is physically well connected and rural intercity connectivity is enhanced.
I am optimistic we will get there.
Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai is Minister of Transport Malaysia and MCA President. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.