Disclaimer: The following opinion piece represents author’s personal views.
This may come as a surprise to some of you acquainted with my earlier opinions or my recent article on the high-speed railway (HSR) link between Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Singapore, but here it comes:
Singapore and Malaysia should not build HSR. Ever.
Why the sudden reversal? Have I changed my mind and become skeptical of trains? Not at all.
A very fast land transportation link between KL and Singapore is absolutely critical to both countries — and a complete no-brainer to anybody who can read a map and understand basic economics.
No, both countries should simply move with the times and abandon their affection for the Victorian-age iron rail and replace it with something much better, which is about to prove its economic viability in just six to seven years.
To make it even more compelling, it’s a technology that Singapore and Malaysia are the best positioned to draw the greatest benefits from out of, pretty much, all countries in the world: magnetic levitation, or maglev.
It will only take 47 minutes
Before you scoff, shrug your shoulders and leave this page with a thought “yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before, but nobody has done it yet!”, please consider the following:
Japan is currently building the first commercial, long-distance maglev line in the world — traversing about 290km between Tokyo and Nagoya (comparable to the distance between KL and SG), with the ultimate extension to Osaka in the following few years.
This first stage is slated to be launched in 2027 (though some delay may be expected) — just six years from now — cutting the travel time across about 300km to just… 40 minutes.
In fact, alternative alignments considered by the Japanese government, covering 350km (pretty much exactly the route between Bandar Malaysia and Jurong East) were supposed to take just 47 minutes. This is half of what the abandoned HSR promised.
And because we’re just a few years away from learning how popular and economically viable such a long-distance maglev line can be, it makes a lot more sense to just wait and see how it works for Japan.
Given the delays and disagreements between Malaysia and Singapore, the original project would still take until 2030s to be completed. By then, it could have very well turned out that both countries are behind the times.
For the first time ever, maglev trains are no longer a fantasy but a reality deployed for regular use in the birthplace of the original bullet train.
And let’s not forget that…
Malaysia is better than Japan…
…for maglev trains.
It’s hard to imagine more difficult conditions for any mode of long-distance travel by land than what Japan has to deal with: very mountainous terrain; constant, severe seismic and volcanic activity; extreme seasonal weather conditions (typhoons in the autumn, many areas with heavy snowfall in the winter).
By comparison, Malaysian peninsula lies in an area of environmental calm, shielded from earthquakes by Indonesia in the south and from typhoons by its proximity to the equator, where such disastrous storms are near impossible.
Due to the fact that a maglev train reaching speeds of 500km/h has to travel in as straight line as possible, the Japanese were forced to put 90 per cent of the track between Tokyo and Nagoya in tunnels under the mountains — what has enormously increased both the time and cost of the project.
It is not, however, something that Malaysia and Singapore have to worry about.
Secondly, as I mentioned in my last article, unlike other countries (save for the poorest ones), neither Singapore nor Malaysia have much of legacy infrastructure that would get in the way. Construction of the new line would mean the end of long-distance narrow-gauge KTM along the north-south axis.
Again, this takes us back to Malaysia’s demographic conditions, which are also very favourable, as most of the country’s population would be well-served with just one high-speed line.
Because there’s no need to invest in additional maglev connections along the east-west axis, the technology makes a lot more economic sense, as it accomplishes more, at a cost limited by the conditions.
Legacy standard-gauge ECRL would provide enough connectivity for the less populated east coast, feeding into the maglev spine.
Countries whose populations are more dispersed have occasionally considered maglev, only to baulk at the cost it would entail and infrastructural issues it would cause.
The necessity to lay backward-incompatible tracks in different directions to serve multiple smaller urban areas amplifies the cost and reduces the net benefit of ultra high-speed technology (which requires sufficient distances to achieve the peak operational velocities for the optimal time savings).
This is not so in this case, as both KL and Singapore are sufficiently large to support such a line, and the number of intermediate stations would be small enough to maintain service at its full technological capacity (Japanese Chuo Shinkansen has four stations planned between Tokyo and Nagoya, while KL-SG high-speed rail had six, at a distance longer by 60km).
How expensive would it be?
Fortunately, thanks to Japan we know what to expect.
With the tunnelling works, high labour costs and the necessity to cut through vast, heavily populated areas of Tokyo, the cost of the connection to Nagoya was revised earlier this year to around 7 trillion yen, or US$62 billion.
This is equivalent to S$83 billion or RM258 billion.
We also know that by original estimates, the cost of HSR expected by the Barisan Nasional government in 2018 was around RM72 billion — this was later revised by Mahathir administration to over RM100 billion.
RM258 billion versus RM100 billion (at the highest estimate) seems to be a huge difference. But we have to, once again, consider the Japanese conditions. Being forced to run the line in tunnels across 90 per cent of the distance effectively multiplies the cost by a factor of two or more.
Erring on the side of caution, it seems we could safely estimate about RM130 billion for the maglev vs. RM100 billion for traditional HSR – with travel times cut in half by the new technology. This certainly makes for a much more favourable comparison for the magnetic levitation.
Why lock yourself into something that has reached its limits when you can be among the first to adopt cutting-edge innovation, right after its creators?
The making of a new metropolis
Klang Valley and Singapore together are home to 14 million people. Just imagine if it took less time to reach KL than to cross Singapore on the MRT.
How much would that change in terms of how people in both cities live? How much would it help business and tourism? How much would it bring them together, blurring the boundaries between the two countries?
This isn’t a fantasy — not anymore, at least. It’s possible and within reach in little over a decade.
By 2030, we should be able to gauge the benefits and costs of the technology based on Japanese experiences. If the evaluation is positive — and it should be — what would really stand in the way of deploying it here, other than political will?
Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. It may very well turn out that the disappointing pullout from the HSR project by Muhyiddin Yassin’s government was a blessing, enabling both countries to leap ahead of everybody else in very near future.
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Featured Image Credit: IHRA (International High-Speed Rail Association)