A proposed rail upgrading plan could save the Malaysian government nearly RM50 billion without building the KL-Singapore high-speed rail – here’s how

Upgrading the existing rail network instead of building an entirely new high-speed rail would cut costs by more than half and prevent disruption to Singapore’s ongoing plans.
MyHSR Corporation Sdn Bhd

A less expensive alternative to the exorbitantly priced Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) is being proposed to the Malaysian government, with the prospect of slashing the original cost of implementation by more than half.

Citing sources, The Star reported that Malaysia’s Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) had been briefed on the new proposal which would involve utilisation of existing double-track infrastructure belonging to national rail operator Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).

Upgrading present infrastructure would incur a cost of RM20 billion ($5 billion), which is significantly cheaper than the hefty price tag of the HSR project that is expected to range from RM60 billion to RM70 billion.

In addition, the comparatively economical alternative could help the government avoid the RM500 million penalty imposed for complete abandonment of the project and re-negotiations with Singapore since plans by the latter would not be disrupted.

Unlike the HSR which boasts a travelling time of 90 minutes from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, the plan to upgrade the existing rail network entails a longer travelling time of 130 minutes once completed.

Consultants have pointed out that travelling time could be shortened by introducing new locomotives that can travel at higher speed while ensuring safety. But it’s only made possible if the government allows third parties to operate KTM-owned rail lines.

“The third parties would be prepared to invest in better locomotives and run operations on a commercial basis. Travel time can be potentially reduced,” said a consultant.

Sources said the enhanced rail connectivity between the two countries at a markedly lower cost would be a key feature of the new proposal.

“Cost will be shaved by more than RM50 billion, which is 70% lower compared with (building) the HSR. This does not include land acquisition cost and possible cost overruns incurred by the HSR projects,” sources said.

“The upgrading of the existing railway tracks would involve minimal land acquisition, minimal disruption to existing system and complement the entire national railway network. It would not lead to a duplication of railway lines.”

Sources also highlighted the plan’s primary issue of improving existing double-track infrastructure such that it could cater for standard gauge and meter gauge trains.

Meter gauge tracks are narrower, causing trains to travel at slower speed. Standard gauge tracks are wider and allow trains to move at higher speed while providing more stability.

The solution: Install a single line that runs parallel to the existing double-track.

However, upgrading the rail network by using most of the railway alignments and installing standard gauge tracks would allow trains to travel at only approximately 200km/h. The HSR, which uses completely new alignments, enables trains to attain a faster speed of 320km/h.

The upgrading plan would be nonetheless cheaper when compared with another suggestion put out by some quarters to extend the Express Rail Link (ERL) from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to Singapore, reportedly costing at least RM30 billion.

“The suggested ERL extension plan would involve a completely new alignment from KLIA and there is not much of a difference in travelling time compared with the plan to upgrade the existing infrastructure,” said a source.

“The advantage for the ERL is that there is an existing station that can be upgraded to incorporate an immigration clearance check post.”

The HSR, along with phase three of a separate Mass Rapid Transit project, was temporarily put on hold by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s administration.

Meanwhile, the CEP is examining measures to improve governance and public finance management as part of efforts to help the government fulfil its election promises within the first 100 days of its inception.

Constraints on public spending came to light amid the government’s move to abolish the goods and services tax as well as revelation that the nation is steeped in debt amounting to more than RM1 trillion.