THE triumph of clear thinking about overall greater national interest versus narrow definitions of environmental and social protection has allowed the creation of rail infrastructure that will improve land transport in Peninsular Malaysia, including the Klang Valley.
Just this past week, the Selangor state government agreed to the federal government’s proposal to route Section C of the 665km East Coast Rail Link from Kota Baru to Port Klang via the northern part of Selangor in what is known as the northern alignment.
Stretching for nearly 170km from Temerloh, Pahang, to Jalan Kastam in Port Klang, Selangor, the dual purpose standard gauge, or 1,435mm wide between rails, Section C will transform the fortunes of even KTM Bhd (KTMB), along with the rest of northern Selangor.
This is because there will be a new interchange on the KTM line known as the Serendah Baru, which will allow cargo trains from Padang Besar and Butterworth to skip the stretch between Rawang and KL Sentral on their way to Port Klang.
This KTM line is very well used by cargo trains, and is now facing various capacity constraints, such as the bottleneck caused by the need to share the track with passenger trains such as the ETS and KTM Komuter, as KTM tries to balance its role between profits (from cargo) and providing social service (especially through Komuter).
According to Goh Bok Yen, a transport planning consultant based in Kuala Lumpur, decongesting KTMB’s tracks in Klang Valley is extremely important for the operator, as its cargo trains from the north to Port Klang always have to be wait at the edges of the city until late evening, after passenger trains are no longer frequent, before they could proceed to Port Klang.
The bottleneck also stems from the fact that all cargo trains have to pass through congested KL Sentral currently, where all kinds of passenger trains converge.
This passage through KL Sentral also presents a certain level of risk to the central station and its surroundings, as some trains carry cargo that is considered hazadous, such as industrial chemicals. After the Serendah bypass is ready, this level of risk will be significantly mitigated as cargo trains from the northern region will be diverted before they even reach Rawang, Selangor, and move on a dedicated line just for them on their way to Port Klang.
Transport Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong said on Thursday that the Serendah cargo bypass has been something long awaited by the ministry, with the proposal floated as far back as 15 years ago.
“The approval for ECRL’s Section C actually allows the wish for this Serendah bypass to be realised, all at the same time, at a competitive cost,” he said in heralding Selangor’s decision to allow for the Section C northern alignment during a document exchange ceremony with the Selangor state government, represented by Mentri Besar, Datuk Seri Amirudin Shari, in Kuala Lumpur.
KTMB’s urgent need for more track capacity came after it began landbridge services with its Thai counterpart, the State Railways of Thailand (SRT) in June 13, 1999.
On that day, a train load of containers made its way from Setia Jaya (Sungai Way), Selangor to Bangkok, an event that marked a new era in the rail industry in the Asean region.
“The service was seen as not only a smart partnership between KTMB and road transport operators, vessel operators and freight forwarders, but also as a way to enhance bilateral transport ties between KTMB and SRT. The landbridge services is a testimony of KTMB’s commitment towards the setting up of the Trans-Asia Rail Link, the proposed connection that has the potential to strengthen and enhance trade between Asean and China,” said KTMB on its website.
The creation of Serendah Baru will also spark off more excitement in Hulu Selangor as a mini rail hub of sorts. Already, Malaysia-owned SMH Rail Sdn Bhd, operates a railyard in Rasa to not only refurbish old trains but also assembly imported ones, as well as build brand new ones for exports, such as its recent export of diesel electric locomotives to Africa. Elsewhere, railway network contractor Daya Maju Infrastructure (Asia) Sdn Bhd, the contractor for the rehabilitation of KTMB’s network in Klang Valley, also operates a yard in Serendah.
“Puncak Alam and Kapar can develop new industrial parks, perhaps even rail-based ones. There is also an automotive cluster in Hulu Selangor, from Perodua, Tan Chong, and UMW Toyota,” said Goh, who is the principal of MAG Technical & Development Consultants Sdn Bhd.
Goh said that while on the surface, both the federal and state governments cannot be faulted for defending their respective positions, with Selangor preferring the southern alignment which passes through southern Bentong district, rather than way closer to Bentong town itself. To make Selangor’s southern alignment even possible, ECRL will have to head southwards sharply after passing Temerloh, going through Kemasul at the southern parts of the Bentong district, before heading into Negri Sembilan’s Jelebu district, and from that point onwards, towards Bangi-Kajang area, on towards Putrajaya before Port Klang.
“There is no right or wrong, as both the northern and southern alignments of Section C are premised upon two different economic models. However, closer scrutiny of federal plans will show which alignment will better ensure the chances of financial sustainability of the project,” said Goh.
From a passenger ridership point of view, having ECRL serve the Gombak Integrated Transport Terminal (future terminal for northern region express buses) allows ECR to tap straight into the Klang Valley commuter rail network, right from day one. Integrated with the Gombak LRT station of the Kelana Jaya LRT, commuters can easily transfer at Gombak ITT, thus ensuring overall success in terms of the passenger catchment.
“If city folks have to travel all the way down south to Putrajaya to catch the ECRL (or to take a bus to Temerloh) to go to the east coast states, then rail becomes a less attractive proposition,” he said.
For him, the value of Section C’s northern alignment lies in its greater potential to capture more freight, as it is serving a more matured industrial ecosystem.
“As ERCL costs a lot to procure as well as to maintain, it is crucial for the operator to get significant financial returns as soon as possible. Routing Section C through the more undeveloped areas puts the project at greater financial risk,” he said.
However, Goh noted, that a southern spur to serve the southern part of Selangor can still be added in future, when the situation warrants it.
“Southern Selangor will take time to be transformed into an industrial zone, but it already has a good road network so far. While the northern Selangor rail network is being improved, the same transformation can take place for roads in the southern region to support industrial development as there are also land banks there. These industries need not necessarily be export-oriented or not for direct export, and as such, may not be so dependent on the rail land bridge.
Other observers also note that Negri Sembilan and nearby areas will also not be left out in the grander scheme of things, as the proposed Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high speed rail, will pass through the state, with a possible station near Labu. In addition to this, Putrajaya is already served by the Express Rail Link, and in three years, the MRT Putrajaya Line, other than also the proposed HSR.
Goh argues that ECRL must quickly prove its viability as a freight line, given that the bulk of its revenue is expected to come from moving cargo. As a landbridge, it will connect Pahang’s Kuantan and Kemaman Ports, and Kelantan’s Tok Bali fisheries port, with Port Klang, just to name some.
“It must go for a mature market or catchment, and be demand driven,” he added.
Stretching 665km from Kota Baru to Port Klang, ECRL is expected to lessen the pressure of relying of trucks, thus freeing up space on roads. One projection has shown that Section C’s northern alignment will be able to capture more than 26 million tonnes of cargo each year, nearly triple if it uses the southern alignment.
In fact, the planners of RM50.27bil ECRL envisage that 70% of its revenue will come from moving cargo, with the balance from running passenger service.
“When cargo operations are well optimised, then ECRL can deliver a good level of passenger service,” said Goh.
Balancing freight with passenger operations will be very critical in the earlier years of operations, as ECRL will be relying largely on a single track, with the addition of an extra track to be considered only when justified by enough cargo volume.
The latest development has also been hailed by Haniff Ghazali, honorary secretary of the Malaysia Rail Industry Corporation (Maric), an industry interest group of the local rail industry.
“There are fast changing movement in public transportation, with ‘disruptions’ such as e-hailing, and then Covid, delaying our progress,” he said.
“’Nevertheless, we must continue to develop our local skills, talents and products. In this, industry and private sectors must take the lead in developing the economy together.
“This is especially timely as the rail industry has of late experienced a reawakening, and is embraced with great enthusiasm by the population and businesses. We just hope that in steering things towards normalcy, the government and the rail industry can collaborate under the spirit of ‘Keluarga Malaysia’, where there is something for everyone.”