Forget HSR, tidy up existing rail network instead

The recent FMT report on the resumption of talks on the High-Speed Rail (HSR) project with Singapore spells bad news for Malaysia.

It seems as if the current government is shying away from admitting that a mistake of grandiose proportions had been committed by the previous BN government.

In our current financial position, it would be foolhardy to embark on this expensive project. At times, we just have to set the record straight, bite the bullet and say ‘no’ rather than giving false hope to Singapore.

Current travel demand, resulting from the impact of Covid-19, has been substantially reduced and it would take a while to bring us back to the pre-pandemic level.

Our immediate concern should be the existing facilities and operators rather than venturing into new ones. For instance, locally incorporated airlines such as Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and Malindo are in dire straits. Shouldn’t the government be focusing on how to assist them first?

It makes more economic sense for the government to channel any available soft funding to existing operators, including buses, so that their employees can be retained. These three airlines and other road-based operators, after all, provide the much needed capacity between KL and Singapore.

The government needs to be told that the HSR project, if it goes ahead, would impact the existing operators providing services between the two cities. The only major beneficiary from the HSR project would be a particular neighbouring country’s airport which would see Malaysians taking advantage of its extensive airline network.

Over a longer term, the government must be made to understand that it needs to focus on the existing ECRL and Gemas-Johor Bahru double tracking projects first, so that a modal shift strategy that it has used to justify the massive expenditure in the first place, could actually happen.

The government has spoken about shifting both passengers and cargo from the highways/road network to rail as a matter of strategy in order to justify spending billions on these two projects. Rather than re-assessing HSR, it should stay focused on these two projects so that their economic benefits can be maximised.

Long-standing issues and major problems affecting the growth of the rail transport network have not been studied and resolved. These include:

  • Synchronising the ECRL-KTMB interchanges and facilitating transfer of passengers and cargo. At the moment, ECRL crosses the KTMB line at Mentakab and Nilai. How is the government planning to integrate and provide seamless travel for both passenger and freight traffic for these two networks?
  • Gemas-JB double tracking. What are the long-term plans and purposes of this line in relation to HSR? What types of services are envisaged by KTMB upon its completion? How prepared are they with the required hardware?
  • After Nilai, ECRL goes to Port Klang, Malaysia’s premier port, with a throughput volume exceeding 15 million TEUs of containers yearly. Obviously, freight traffic would be the main target.
  • While Nilai could be a major freight hub for traffic going south, KL Sentral will continue to be the main bottleneck for freight going north and for traffic coming from the north going to Port Klang. The issue is that freight trains are not given priority and can only access the track between midnight and 6am. How is the government going to resolve this?
  • ECRL by-passes KLIA. Given the large air passenger and air freight volume potentially available, how are passengers and freight supposed to get to Malaysia’s main airport?
  • Double tracking to JB would potentially create higher demand for rail travel. But what about the next link? Are there any improvements in the flow of passengers in JB-Singapore linkages, including the Causeway?
  • Don’t forget the issues in Penang, grossly formulated in the name of public transport. Projects that promote the use of private cars such as the Penang tunnel should be cancelled and turned into rail-based or mass transit provisions instead. What are the government’s long-term plans on this?
  • Users, especially for freight transport, need to plan and invest in hardware to be in line with the government’s policy objectives. Is the modal shift strategy going to be pursued rigorously by the government?

These are some of the hard questions the government should seriously consider if it is serious about rail transport.

Revising HSR is meaningless without resolving all the inherent problems that have long existed in our rail network. Anticipating new problems before they happen is equally important.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.