I HAVE been reading with much interest the reports on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project and especially the new Government’s plan to study the feasibility of going ahead with it due to the rather high cost.
I have a proposal which I think merits consideration by the Government that may help reduce the cost and ultimately make more operational sense to the national railway system as a whole.
Instead of building the line from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Baru/Tumpat in one go, build it in two phases. Phase 1 could cover the Kuala Lumpur-Mentakab-Kuantan-Kerteh route and Phase 2 could link the north of Kerteh to Kuala Terengganu and Kota Baru. The construction of the second phase can be considered when the economic situation is better or after the first phase has proven its economic worth.
Next, build the line as a metre gauge (1,000mm) electrified double track from the Klang Valley to Kerteh via Mentakab and Kuantan. The original ECRL plan was for a standard gauge (1,435mm) electrified single track. Building the metre gauge ought to reduce the cost of construction considerably as it ultimately involves less real estate. It will also allow seamless interconnection with the existing KTMB metre gauge rail network in both Klang Valley and Mentakab. Furthermore, the railway will allow cargo from the west (like bulk cement and bulk sugar) to be transported to the east more easily. The 160kph operation envisaged for the standard gauge ECRL is not much different from KTMB’s 140kph operation over its metre gauge tracks, so the so-called general higher-speed advantage of standard gauge is really moot.
More importantly, with a metre gauge rail link to Kuantan port, it will be possible to run land-bridge freight container services direct (seamless) between the east and west coasts (Port Klang). Building the ECRL in standard gauge as originally planned would have entailed transshipment by trucks to the Klang port from the Gombak terminus, which takes more time and hence a less favourable option among transporters.
Building the ECRL as a metre gauge would also allow a more direct rail connection between Kuala Lumpur and Kelantan. Presently, trains to the east coast (Tumpat) from Kuala Lumpur (currently suspended) have to make a 180km detour south to Gemas before making their way northeast to Mentakab (120km) and onwards to Tumpat. The rail junction in Mentakab will save 300km and about four hours of travel time to Tumpat, which is a significant saving!
In Kuantan, the line can interface with the abandoned metre gauge tracks of the Kuantan Kerteh Rail System with its ready connection to the Kuantan port, making use of infrastructure already in place (bridges, culverts, flyovers and etc), adding further to cost savings. The tracks can be rehabilitated and signalling introduced, among others, at a fraction of the cost of building a new standard gauge line over its alignment.
The connection with Kerteh is important for two reasons. Kerteh is the hub of the oil and gas industry in the peninsula and there will certainly be potential for rail carriage of goods and products related to the oil and gas (O&G) industry. Such goods can be transported to the rest of the country via seamless connection with the KTMB network as mentioned earlier.
Secondly, a considerable number of O&G personnel travel between Kerteh and Kuala Lumpur, where the headquarters of most O&G companies are. At present, this is achieved mainly via air transport. At one point, one airline actually charged RM800 for a return trip to Kuala Lumpur from Kerteh! With a properly planned alignment, the distance between Kuala Lumpur and Kerteh would be around 300km (1985 Japan International Cooperation Agency Feasibility Study), which an electric train such as the ones used by KTMB for its ETS can easily cover in about three hours (less if non-stop).
Speaking of electric trains, I strongly recommend that the specifications of trains proposed for the ECRL are reconsidered too.
The original proposal calls for a 160kph eight-car EMU (Electric Multiple Unit) made up of seven trailer cars and one motor car. This is no different from a locomotive pulling seven coaches, which is a sham to be called EMU.
KTMB’s six-car EMUs have three motor cars and three trailer cars! Generally speaking, the more motor cars an EMU has, the better the acceleration, which helps to reduce travel times.
I also recommend changing the signalling scheme (CTCS) proposed for the ECRL. It is used mainly in China and may prove to be a dependence (and cost) issue later on. The more prevalent CTCS should be used for ease of getting spares and maintenance.
I believe a revised ECRL will prove to be cheaper and make more economic sense in the long run.
Batu Gajah, Perak
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