High-speed rail a 'game changer'

High-speed rail a 'game changer'

TODAY, 20 Feb, 2013

With several joint projects between Singapore and Malaysia in progress following the landmark resolution of a decades-long dispute over railway land, the two governments yesterday announced another historic agreement: The construction of a high-speed rail linking Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in 90 minutes, a move which both Prime Ministers said will be a “game changer”.

The announcement came during a retreat between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his counterpart, Mr Najib Razak — the pair’s fourth since the inaugural meeting in 2009.

At a joint press conference yesterday, Mr Lee said the high-speed rail link will be a “strategic project for the two countries” as it will allow people in two cities to see themselves as “one virtual urban community”, citing the example of London and Paris, which are linked by Eurostar.

“I think it’s going to be a game changer. It will transform the way people interact, the intensity of our cooperation and the degree to which we become interdependent on one another and, therefore, have stakes in each other’s success,” Mr Lee said.

Added Mr Najib: “Our two cities will complement each other, our two countries will look at each other differently and the opportunities are boundless between our two countries.”

Malaysia’s target completion date for the rail link is 2020. Mr Lee pledged the Government’s cooperation to try to meet it once the Republic has studied the plans and details that are being worked out by Malaysia.

Mr Lee added that he felt building the rail link was a good idea when Mr Najib first mooted the suggestion to him a few months ago. “At this retreat, we decided that we should make a statement that ‘Yes, we want this, we’re working towards this’ and I think we can make it work,” Mr Lee said.

The plan to build a high-speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur was first floated in the late 1990s and saw a push in 2006 when Malaysian conglomerate YTL submitted an RM 8 billion (S$3.2 billion) proposal to the government. In 2010, it was identified as a project under the Malaysian government’s Economic Transformation Programme, with proposed stops in Johor, Malacca and Negeri Sembilan.

Asked yesterday about the estimated cost of the planned project, Mr Najib declined to reveal the figures because they were “too preliminary for us to reveal to the public”, but noted that their initial studies have shown that it is “doable” as a business model.
Plans are for the project to be a private-public partnership where private firms will run the project with strong government participation and infrastructural support, he added.

The rail line is the latest agreement between both countries since Mr Najib took office in 2009.

During the retreat, both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a “stronger and mutually beneficial partnership, especially amid an uncertain global economy”, adding that the joint projects from the 2010 agreement reflected the high degree of trust and complementarity between both countries.

They added that they hoped to maintain steady bilateral relations which they can strengthen over time.

They discussed several other issues, including cooperation on water supply, transboundary environmental concerns, as well as expanding the digital dividend radio frequencies.

Both leaders yesterday visited the work sites of two of the joint projects — Marina One in Singapore and two wellness developments in Iskandar — borne out of the 2010 Points of Agreement deal.

Asked what impact the impending Malaysian elections — which must be called by April 28 and polls held within 60 days — will have on bilateral ties and the joint projects, Mr Najib said continuity is important as these are long-term developments. “The essence of making things happen is that you need continuity and stability, which works out to, you know, it’s quite obvious what that means,” he said.

Mr Lee added quickly: “We would like continuity and stability, too.”

Observers welcome link but voice concerns over cost

The Straits Times, Feb 20, 2013

NEWS of the proposed high-speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur was greeted yesterday with cheer and a tinge of caution.

Observers said the obvious economic and social benefit is that it promises the fastest door-to-door commute between the two cities when it is operational in 2020.

But they said such a project will be costly to build and operate, while others pointed to possible adverse environmental impact from noise and land consumption.

They added that such a line is likely to diminish demand for air travel.

Mr John Davies, director of infrastructure at engineering group Arup, said: "It's good news, and a long time coming. It brings the two cities much closer together.

"The key issue is how it is going to be financed. There has to be transparency in the way works are awarded."

He added that such a huge project may also stretch resources as "the construction industry on both sides of the Causeway are pretty busy right now" - a reference to Singapore's aim to double its metro network to 360km by 2030 and Kuala Lumpur building its own mass rapid transit project.

Mr Davies also warned that the private sector could overstate the economic and commercial returns of such a project, and understate the actual cost of construction and operation.

Often, he said, governments could end up bailing out such big-ticket projects.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said yesterday that the business model of the project is "doable", and that the project is likely to be built as a public-private partnership (PPP), where the private sector runs the project but the public sector provides "infrastructure support".

Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport Singapore chairman Karmjit Singh, a PPP expert, said there is no prescribed financing model for such a project. He said each model had to be judged according to its own merits and relevance to the project at hand - and the best one should offer the highest value for money.

The current total number of travellers between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is not known. Estimates put the volume of air passengers between the two at 5.2 million a year. There are no consolidated figures for those who travel by road and rail.

As a yardstick, Taiwan's 345km high-speed rail link between Taipei and Kaohsiung - about the length of the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur link - has an annual ridership of 44.5 million.

Meanwhile, infrastructure companies are already looking forward to bidding for the project.

Malaysian conglomerate YTL has been lobbying for such a project for years, but it was not available for comment yesterday. Japanese and European rail providers are also expected to be eyeing the project.

Mr Timothy Toh, managing director of TUV Rheinland Singapore, a technological services provider, described the proposed link as "a truly exciting project which will use the latest high-speed train technology for the first time in South-east Asia".

The Straits Times understands that the high-speed rail link - with trains travelling in excess of 300kmh - is likely to terminate in Tuas because there is space and an MRT connection there. Also, Singapore would have to reserve a huge tract of land if the line were to go farther inland.

Mr Davies of Arup pointed out, however, that in the case of Hong Kong, Seoul, Paris and London, the terminals "are all in the centre of town".

The environmental impact can be mitigated, he said, by the use of noise barriers or by going underground as the line approaches the city.