MALAYSIA will embark on a detailed study this year to see how it can maximise economic and social returns should a decision be made to proceed with the building of a high speed rail (HSR) network in the country.
According to MyHSR Corporation Sdn Bhd (MyHSR), the special purpose company to spearhead the project on the Malaysian side, the study is expected to take up to six months.
If Malaysia decides to proceed with building a HSR network, it is possible to have as many as four new domestic HSR services, said MyHSR Corp chief executive Datuk Mohd Nur Ismal Kamal at a recent press briefing, following the lapse of a bilateral agreement signed with Singapore on Dec 13,2016 to have a cross border HSR service from Bandar Malaysia to Jurong East, Singapore.
He added, the four possible domestic services are the KL Sentral to Seremban (express and transit) and KL Sentral to Iskandar Puteri (express and transit), a scenario possible if the HSR network is allowed to be connected to the existing 57km long Express Rail Link (ERL that runs from KL Sentral to KLIA and Klia2).
While acknowledging that Malaysia had wanted to drop AssetsCo, a crucial element of the HSR bilateral agreement with Singapore, MyHSR chairman Tan Sri Esa Mohamed at the same briefing said that Malaysia had also submitted to Singapore a list of proposals that would have allowed Malaysia to reap more benefits from the project, widely speculated to cost anywhere from RM60bil and upwards.
AssetsCo is a jointly appointed financed asset company responsible for supplying, installing and maintaining trains, tracks, power supply, signalling and communications systems, other than control operations of HSR trains in Malaysia and Singapore.
Esa said the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic since the postponement of the project after May 2018, had led to a comprehensive review of the project so that costs can be lowered, while the expected benefits maximised.
“Things have changed significantly. For that reason, we wanted to review and make some changes to the alignment, the project structure, the business model, and most important, to the AssetsCo, which is not really within our control. This is the one and only chance, and we should maximise the project for the benefit of the people here, and this includes the overall transportation network, efficiency and connectivity, ” said Esa.
According to Mohd Nur, many allegations about the bilateral project are untrue, especially on the so-called “alternatives” that began popping up in the days leading up to the joint announcement on the lapse of the bilateral HSR agreement by both governments on Jan 1.
“We have been working very hard to ensure this project can happen, to reach an agreement with Singapore, all the way up to New Year’s Eve, because we believe in it. Since it did not happen, we do not have any backup projects, ” he said.
“One key issue is about all sorts of allegations on the proposed alternatives, that there is another project, or technology (such as medium speed rail), or that it will terminate at different cities (such as KLIA).
“Let me say categorically that there is no other project that the Government has committed itself to other than this Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR. Therefore, whatever that has been said is untrue. There is no such thing as a KL to Johor Baru HSR project. There is no decision on that. There is no direct negotiation project to be awarded, ” said Mohd Nur.
On the persistent issue of abortive costs to be paid to Singapore for allowing the agreement to lapse, Mohd Nur said the fact of the matter is that there is no amount to reveal at the moment.
“This is because Singapore has not finalised its claim and submitted it to us. How can we disclose what has not been submitted to us yet? Once that claim is in, we will do our due diligence to verify the details. That is the real story, ” he said.
On the new study that is about to begin, Mohd Nur said MyHSR is still negotiating the terms of reference and its scope, with hopes that it can be concluded within this year.
“But it depends on how much work needs to be done, ” he added.
HSR is far from dead
Observers of the HSR project remain optimistic that level heads will prevail, and that, the country will eventually see an improved railway system.
“As someone who was part of the Malaysian team of officials that worked on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project for two years way back in 2015–2016, I felt a tinge of sadness when the two prime ministers announced the termination of the HSR bilateral agreement, ” said Dr Prodyut Dutt, a former Malaysian government official who was part of the team involved in the HSR bilateral negotiations as the chief development officer of the (now disbanded) Land Public Transport Commission from 2015 to 2018.
However, Dutt, who is currently the Asian Development Bank's International Railway Advisor on Thailand's railway programme, believes that the HSR project is far from being obliterated.
“Listening to Minister in Prime Minister’s Department (Economy) Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, and also from Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, I realised that while the 2016 HSR bilateral agreement is definitely dead and buried, the same is not necessarily true of the project itself.
“In an act of statesmanship, both ministers very explicitly left open the possibility of a direct HSR connection between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in the future, ” Dutt told Sunday Star, adding that both these statements are significant indications that both countries recognise the benefits of having a direct HSR service between the two countries.
“The Singapore transport minister has listed a number of reasons why AssetsCo is considered necessary for the cross-border HSR service. I am not here to debate on this issue. Suffice to say that cross border HSR services are very common in Europe, and none of such services has anything equivalent to AssetsCo.
“After all, if the removal of the AssetsCo per se was the reason, Singapore would not offer to start negotiations with Malaysia on a clean slate. They already know we would not be proposing or agreeing to AssetsCo anymore should we engage in fresh negotiations, ” said Dutt, who has over 30 years of experience in both domestic and international transportation sectors.
He added that while a fully domestic HSR service may still be viable by international standards, there is no doubt that a direct HSR service between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore will add to the project’s viability in a very significant manner.
“By any standards the expenditure is huge, and any steps Malaysia takes to further boost project viability is welcome.
“Hence, Malaysia should consider submitting our proposals for a new agreement so that both countries can start negotiating a new HSR agreement that satisfies both countries’ concerns. This will make the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR service a reality, ” he said.
The proposed joining of the HSR network with the ERL tracks via a spur line near KLIA2, and a bypass near Salak Tinggi (see map), is one of the measures by Malaysia to manage costs on its side.
This proposal, if accepted, will allow Malaysia to skip having to build another pair of tracks just to serve the HSR near the city, where land is scarce.
Under the original proposal, a massive tunnel measuring nearly 15km long will have to be built starting from Country Heights area near Kajang, all the way to Bandar Malaysia, if the HSR is to run on a track solely dedicated to high speed passenger trains.
“This proposal will allow us to fully utilise or ‘sweat’ the ERL asset through track sharing with HSR, ” said a MyHSR Corp official during the briefing on how the government may extract the full value of the existing ERL track.
The ERL track, which passes at the edge of Bandar Malaysia, may also help reduce construction costs for Bandar Malaysia, which is still the end point for the cross border HSR service, even under Malaysia’s revised proposal.
“From the express passengers’ perspective, there is no difference. You still board at Bandar Malaysia, and remain on the same train all the way to Singapore (and vice versa), ” said Esa, who added that Malaysia is committed to ensuring the non-stop journey time to Singapore and vice versa stays at no more than 90 minutes as planned originally.
“We are still protecting the outcome of this HSR project, ” he said.
However, adding the spur line and bypass opens up many new possibilities for those using the domestic HSR at it allows shorter travel times from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban, while also making it easier for those heading to KLIA from Melaka and Johor.
Other major changes proposed by Malaysia include moving the southern alignment in Johor further inland, with the track now passing through Ayer Hitam instead of Batu Pahat.
“The realignment from Batu Pahat to Ayer Hitam reduces the length of the alignment, while straightening it, and allows us to avoid building over deep peat soil around Batu Pahat, thus helping to reduce cost, ” said Esa.
A MyHSR Corp official added with the overall straighter and shorter alignment in Johor more than compensates for the high speed train’s slower speed when it enters the ERL tracks, which are rated for speeds of up to 160kph.
Esa said other significant savings on the infrastructure side comes from making the HSR stations on our side “more functional”.
“We are relooking the design of the stations, departing from being ostentatiously iconic, to something pragmatic, ” said Esa, an architect by training.
Regardless of whether the HSR will go cross border, or if it gets built at all, MyHSR has given the commitment that best practices will be in place to engineer the best value for the country.
As Mohd Nur put it, MyHSR Corp’s immediate task is to embark on a detailed study to ensure that whatever options on the table will be able to stand on its own merit.
“It has to be viable, can raise its own financing. It has to have enough leg to stand on its own, ” he stressed.
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