An FAQ guide to the SG-KL High-Speed Rail

Dec 15, 2016 08.00PM |

by Glenn Ong 

THERE’S plenty of talk in the news this week about the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High-Speed Rail (HSR) project. There’s a lot to digest, even for the speediest readers. Here’s a quick guide to get you up to speed – in definitely less than 90 minutes.


What’s the latest?

On Tuesday (Dec 13), a legally binding deal between Malaysia and Singapore was signed to move ahead on the HSR – five months after both parties inked a memorandum of understanding in July this year. Completion date has been set for December 2026. No hard deadline has been given for when construction will start, but to make the 2026 opening date, some experts say it shouldn’t start later than 2018.


Where will it go?

The HSR will consist of three services managed by two operators. The first will be an express service between the two terminal stations in Jurong East in Singapore and Bandar Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. The second will be a shuttle service between Singapore and Iskandar Puteri in Johor, while the third will be a domestic service linking the seven stations within Malaysia.

The project will have a total of eight stations, of which one will be in Singapore. Just 15km of the 350km track will lie in Singapore. The HSR is expected to shorten the travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur from about four hours to just 90 minutes, with trains travelling more than 300km/h. International commuters will only have to clear customs once, at the point of departure.


Sounds amazing. Who came up with the idea?

The idea of the HSR was first mooted by Malaysian Prime Minister, Mr Najib Razak in 2012. A few months later, in February 2013, he and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced during a Leaders’ Retreat that both countries had commenced serious talks about the project. Since then, both sides have agreed that each country will be responsible for managing the infrastructure and stations in their respective territories, though other aspects – such as security and the operation of rail assets – will either be jointly administered or be managed by private entities.


Who’s going to build it?

According to a joint press release, both Gs will call for a joint tender for the operator of the first two services, while Malaysia will hold an independent tender for its domestic service. A separate joint tender will also be called for a rail assets operator.

A number of countries and companies have expressed interest in the lucrative project – Mr Najib paid a visit to China last month, where he rode on the Tianjin high-speed rail and received a briefing by its operator, which is bidding for the Singapore-KL HSR. When asked if the project would be awarded to a consortium instead, PM Lee said that it is “too premature to speculate on the permutations”.

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How much will it cost (and who’s going to pay for it)?

While it is unclear exactly how much the project will cost, it is currently valued at RM50 billion (S$16.6 billion). For now, no word is out on how the project will be managed. PM Lee stopped short of providing details, saying that the tender will be awarded to “the best one”.

Questions remain over how the costs will be split – since less than 5 per cent of the tracks and only one station will be located in Singapore – how much the tickets will cost, and whether the company or consortium that is awarded the tender will encounter the same problems we experienced with our local trains.


The Singapore media can’t get enough of the news – why?

The HSR goes beyond merely expediting the journey between both countries. The project has been touted as a “game-changer” in improving bilateral ties. When the idea was first proposed, PM Lee pointed to the Eurostar, which he said transformed “two European cities into one virtual urban community”, as a model for the Singapore-KL HSR. On Tuesday, he added that “our relationship must be more than just economic and transactional”. As part of the agreement, cultural showcases by both countries will become a regular feature starting from 2018.

Calling it a “historic” deal, TODAY reported that the formalised agreement establishes the basis of cooperation for both countries in terms of construction standards and regulatory frameworks. The Straits Times was likewise optimistic that the project will be realised on time and within budget, calling it “ambitious but achievable”.

Both leaders said that the completion of the HSR will have a “multiplier effect” on the gross national income of both countries and will help create “almost 30,000 jobs”.


What about in Malaysia?

The Malaysian press has likewise reported on the project favourably. Datuk Rahman Dahlan, who signed the deal on Malaysia’s behalf, said in a press statement on Sunday (Dec 11) that this project benefits Malaysia in multiple ways, such as contributing to the economic, social, and technological sectors of the country. The HSR will also increase business productivity and broaden access to different markets. All these will contribute to the improvement of bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia.

He added: “The [Malaysian] government wants to build a project that links both countries and ensures that the country remains competitive.”


OK, it all sounds so positive. Is there a downside to the HSR?

While the project is good news for many who make frequent trips across the Causeway, it is not without some issues. With greater ease of movement across borders also comes a greater potential for security threats. In response, PM Lee said that the border both countries share is already the busiest in the world, and that closing it is not the appropriate response to security threats. He added that the border agencies of both countries will work closely to maximise safety, security, and convenience.


What could derail the project?

A long-term commitment of resources and manpower from both countries, as well as competent and reliable private sector partners, is required for the project to see the light of day.

Acknowledging the difficulties of coordinating and channelling resources, PM Lee said that “it’s a very tight timeline, and there are many potential bumps” such as the threat of an economic downturn. However, he added that if “the countries have been able to put aside their resources which are available, the project will proceed”.

Besides the cost to both countries, PM Lee noted that any decision made has to be agreed upon by both parties, as it is a “joint project”.

Yet, the fact that the entire project – from its conception, to the announcement, and to the conducting of the signing ceremonies in Malaysia – has been framed as the brainchild of the Malaysian PM, suggests that Putrajaya will do most of the heavy lifting for the HSR. After all, it is Malaysia – not Singapore – that has to deal directly with the bulk of the consequences should any serious mistakes be made.

To compound matters, with elections in Malaysia just around the corner, and with the 1MDB scandal leaving many Malaysians divided, doubts loom over whether the project will proceed as agreed should Mr Najib and the ruling Barisan Nasional be unseated.

In response to The Straits Times, Dr Lee Der Horng, a professor of transport engineering at the National University of Singapore, said that the actual construction of the rail system is unlikely to take more than three years. This is because the system, unlike those in Japan and Taiwan, does not need to be able to withstand natural disasters.

Rather, he said that because both governments have no experience overseeing such a massive rail project, the major obstacles are completing the tender and contract documents and finalising the alignment of the railway in time for construction to begin.


Additional reporting by Iffah Nadhirah Osman.

Featured image CRH / 和谐号 by Flickr user Tauno Tõhk / 陶诺. (CC BY 2.0)

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