by SANTHA OORJITHAM
New Straits Times
December 2, 2006
A high-speed train link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore has been on the back burner for longer than many realise. But the stakeholders tell SANTHA OORJITHAM they have yet to agree on whether the pros outweigh the cons.
WHEN Datuk Mohd Nadzmi Mohd Salleh was appointed by the Cabinet to implement the train project to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in 1997, he was asked to use metre gauge tracks that were compatible with KTM trains.
But the executive chairman of Express Rail Link Sdn Bhd (ERL) held out for standard gauge tracks. He argued that would give him a better choice of rolling stock and the possibility of a high-speed rail link to Singapore in the future.
"It made a lot of sense to link two Asean capitals and develop the south-western corridor, benefiting both Malaysia and Singapore," he recalls.
But since the proposal for a bullet train between both capitals surfaced in the media in July this year, stakeholders have been arguing about the advantages and disadvantages of the estimated RM8 billion project.
While some worry about the possible cost for taxpayers, others worry about the impact on Johor, Malaysia Airlines and other transport operators.
Back in 1997, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad appeared to buy the idea, Nadzmi says. And when the executive chairman presented the idea to then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2002, "he was excited".
ERLs shareholders YTL Corporation (50 per cent), Lembaga Urusan Tabung Haji (40 per cent) and Nadzmis personal investment holding company, Trisilco Equity (10 per cent) also liked the idea.
ERL wrote to the Ministry of Transport in December 2004 with its proposal. The following month, Nadzmi says, the ministry replied that it had no objection.
And in July this year, Transport Minister Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy said YTL Corporation and its partners had been asked to conduct a feasibility study. Meanwhile, Khazanah Nasional Bhd embarked on a social impact study, aided by an international consultant.
Nadzmi was interviewed by Khazanah in his other capacity as executive chairman of Nadicorp Holdings Sdn Bhd, a public bus operator.
He told them the high-speed train would not cannibalise his bus customers: "It is not going to eliminate existing players but complement them. It is looking at an expanding market and will carve its own niche. If pricing is done properly, each mode of transport will find its own level ERL, buses, MAS and low-cost carriers (LCCs). All this will offer more choice to the consumer."
The 90-minute service will target business travellers and those looking for the convenience of a shorter trip. And the price, Nadzmi warns, "will definitely be closer to airline fares" since it will be a "premium service" although there may be lower rates during off-peak hours.
But a transport analyst estimates that both a bullet train and an LCC service between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore would damage MAS on one of its most profitable routes, which earns between US$80 million (RM296 million) and US$100 million per year. This sector is split equally between MAS and Singapore Airlines, which now charge around RM800 for the round trip. In a New Straits Times street poll and in feedback to NST Online in July, some travellers said they were willing to pay up to RM500 for a 90-minute train service.
Air fares may drop in the future with liberalisation between Asean capitals by 2008. By 2010 this will extend to a secondary city and by 2015, Asean is due to have "open skies". Ministers of transport on both sides of the Causeway are also considering opening up the route to LCCs even earlier possibly in time for Visit Malaysia Year 2007. But Nadzmi reckons fares for the electric train will still be competitive since aviation fuel prices are escalating.
Meanwhile, Johor Baru MP Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad has two major concerns about the project.
"A high-speed train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore would definitely require a bridge," he points out. Since the scenic bridge proposal has been dropped: "Why do you want to build a bridge now?"
Nadzmi admits the connection cannot be made without Singapores consent but is sanguine:
"We need support from the Singapore government and if it is beneficial to them, we hope they will support it. And we hope the Malaysian government would assist in negotiations with Singapore."
Some Singaporean government-linked companies are believed to have taken an interest in the project. If the initiative is private sector driven, maybe it could succeed where the scenic bridge failed.
Shahrir, who is chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, also complains that too much land has already been acquired for the purpose of transport in Johor state for the North-South Highway and proposed double-tracking for KTM.
"The high-speed train proposal seems to suggest there would be a new, third corridor," he says. If so, "People in Johor would be unhappy because most of the land would be acquired from Johor."
Nadzmi argues that the project, which would probably run along the western coast, would make Johor more attractive by providing more infrastructure.
It could bring more investment into South Johors Iskandar Development Region: "It will spur economic development, from Singaporean investors for example, which would not kick in without it."
He also predicts it will boost tourism, with not only a non-stop service to Singapore but another service with stops including Malacca and Johor Baru. Over 32 million flew into Changi airport last year, he notes, whereas 20 million flew into KLIA, so there is capacity to grow.
Some also worry about how the project would be financed. In July, the prime minister cited the high-speed train as an example of a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) proposed by the private sector. This kind of project was too expensive for the government, he said, but the private sector could carry it out if it bore the full cost with a little help from the facilitation fund for things such as land acquisition and construction of electrical pylons.
"It wont work because of the new infrastructure cost," claims the transport analyst.
"The Malaysian government would pay part of the capital expenditure and the people would pay."
"The government will not be involved in the equity," counters Nadzmi. "The private sector can make it viable, otherwise we wouldnt put our money in. It wont be a burden to anyone."
Since ERL already has a depot at KL Sentral, a 60km corridor up to KLIA (the entire length is an estimated 320km) and personnel with expertise in managing a bullet train, he argues: "We can do it cheaper. It is a logical extension of our existing business."
Johor-based Jalur Mudra Sdn Bhd offers magnetic levitation trains which it claims would be 40 per cent cheaper and take only 60 minutes.
But even the Johor company could have an uphill task persuading fellow Johoreans about yet another connection between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Shahrir says the proposal was discussed at the Umno Johor liaison committee meeting recently.
"The train could go to Johor Baru and end there," he says. "That would be the best way to get Johor support. Thats the consensus."
MALAYSIA'S unprofitable national railway company is not worried about competition from a proposed high-speed bullet train linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, a top official said yesterday.
Malaysia Today - April 18, 2007
ASSOCIATED PRESS: Malaysian conglomerate YTL Corp had proposed building an RM8 billion (S$3.5 billion) bullet train link that would cover the 325km journey between the country's biggest city and Singapore in 90 minutes.
This compares to seven hours on existing train services by state railway company KTM.
KTM managing director Mohamad Salleh Abdullah said the bullet train would not cater to the average person as its fares would likely be higher.
A ticket for an air-conditioned, second-class seat on a KTM train costs only RM22, he said. Last year, KTM ferried some 600,000 passengers between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
The bullet train proposal is still being studied by the two governments, and there has been no indications on fares.
Datuk Mohamad Salleh said that KTM, which currently runs mostly on single tracks, could cut travel time between Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to around four hours once double-track electric lines are built.
Projects to double-track rail lines straddling the length of Malaysia are either ongoing or expected to start soon, and likely to be completed in five years, he said.
'Single tracks are bleeding us. We need (all our rail lines) to be double track and electrified because it is cleaner, more efficient, economical and faster,' he said. 'The target date is 2012. It will definitely mark a new era for us.' -
YTL Corp confident of KL-Singapore bullet train project
BERNAMA KUALA LUMPUR, Thu.: 2007/12/06
YTL Corp Bhd, which has submitted the proposal for a bullet train between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to the government, is confident of securing the project as it will be beneficial to the public, group managing director Tan Sri Francis Yeoh Sock Ping said here today.
The proposal, currently being evaluated by the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Ministers Department, can also increase the value of properties in Kuala Lumpur.
I am confident (to secure the project) because everybody wants it. The Malaysian government is pragmatic and at the end of the day if the public wants it, why not?, he said.
Yeoh was speaking to reporters after the signing ceremony between subsidiary YTL Construction (Thailand) Ltd and Lehman Brothers Investments Pte Ltd.
He said the bullet train that connects Paris and London has been able to increase the value of properties in these cities and a bullet train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore may well give the same impact.
There is a 700 per cent difference in property value between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. I think a bullet train will cut down this gap. Lets say if it cuts down to 260 per cent, you will be richer by RM5 billion (in values of properties), he said.
Yeoh, however, declined to say when the group expects to get an answer from the government.
Malaysia drops KL-Singapore bullet train project
Channel News Asia
Posted: 22 April 2008 2045 hrs
KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has shelved plans for a bullet train linking Kuala Lumpur to Singapore because of the cost, a top planning official said on Tuesday.
The 8 billion ringgit (US$2.5 billion) project, proposed by Malaysian infrastructure and utilities group YTL Corp in 2006, aimed to cut travel time between the two cities to 90 minutes from seven-and-a-half hours presently.
"The government is not going ahead with the bullet train project because the financial model submitted would involve a significant cost to be borne by the government," Sulaiman Mahbob, head of the economic planning unit in the Prime Minister's Office, told Reuters via telephone.
Officials of YTL had no immediate comment.
The idea for a high-speed train between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, about 300 kilometres apart, dates back to the late 1990s, but was revived after the Malaysian government invited companies to submit ideas for privately funded projects.
The Malaysian government backed the project in 2007 after it passed a feasibility study, but said at the time it wanted to conduct a social impact study since the project would involve land acquisition.
News of the abandonment came shortly after the government said it was reviewing some projects under a five-year state development plan, reviving concerns that it might postpone them following its shock electoral setback in last month's poll.
"There are many projects that are being reviewed at the moment," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told reporters earlier on Tuesday, referring to jobs under the 200-billion ringgit (US$64 billion) development plan.
He did not elaborate, but government officials said the state was reconsidering some projects due to the rising cost of building materials and to give priority to food projects to ensure sufficient supply and help curb rising prices. - REU/al
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