Critics stick to stand on ECRL after Putrajaya’s greenlight

The government’s economic adviser Jomo Kwame Sundaram is among vocal critics of the ECRL.

PETALING JAYA: Critics of the multi-billion ringgit East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) appear to be not convinced with the multi-billion ringgit project despite the Pakatan Harapan government’s go-ahead today.

Among them is one of the government’s economic advisers, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, who had been vocal in criticising the project when it was vigorously promoted by the Najib Razak administration.

But Jomo said he was reserving his comments pending more details on what transpired in the latest deal with Beijing.

“My stand (on ECRL) is the same but I will not comment on the latest negotiations due to lack of information on its details,” Jomo told FMT when asked for his response on the government’s announcement approving the project with a lower price tag and amended routes.

Putrajaya today announced a reduction of RM21.5 billion in construction cost for Phase 1 and 2 of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project.

It said the cost was reduced from RM65.5 billion to RM44 billion following the signing of an agreement between Malaysia Rail Link and China Communications Construction Company.

After coming to power last year, PH suspended the 688km project due to its high cost.

Critics of the project have questioned the previous government’s claim that the ECRL would spur growth, with many saying it was an an effort to cover up issues related to the 1MDB scandal.

Jomo had said that the ECRL project was similar to other mega projects around the world “notorious for cost overruns”.

“The ECRL is supposed to greatly benefit the country in so many incredible ways that defy simple logic. But will there be enough passenger traffic to support a high-speed rail link?” said Jomo, who was part of the five-member Council of Eminent Persons which reported directly to Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“What kind of cargo needs such a costly high-speed haulage connection?” he wrote in an article published by FMT in August 2017.

Earlier this year, Jomo repeated his opposition to the project.

He called for the project to be cancelled but said it could upset ties with China and that Putrajaya needed time to iron out details.

Another economist also said the ECRL was not a need for Malaysia, especially as the country is saddled with hundreds of billions of ringgit in debt.

“If the government says our debts are to the tune of RM1 trillion, why do we want to add another RM44 billion?” said Hoo Ke Ping.

He also questioned the rationale of having a link between Kota Bharu and Jelebu, a new stop for the revised ECRL as announced today.

“Is the cargo palm oil or crude oil?” he asked.

He questioned if the oil industry players in Kelantan and Terengganu would opt to use the fast train to transport their cargo.

Under the revised deal inked today, several stations along the ECRL are scrapped, including Gombak.

The new alignment is also shorter by 40km, reducing its total length from 688km to 648km.

Meanwhile, transport expert Rosli Azad Khan said the government might be left with no choice but to continue with the project.

“The previous administration already paid RM20 billion, so it makes more sense to just pay another RM20 plus billion and get an infrastructure system, rather than cancel it because you won’t get the RM20 billion back.”

He said the shorter route omitting Gombak is also likely the cheapest alternative to the original line, as it will also remove the previously proposed tunnel from Bentong to Gombak.

“I think the government went with the cheapest possible option it could. Hopefully, over time we can recoup the costs.”