Cheaper option to high-speed rail proposed to Malaysian govt: Report

Malaysian govt considering $6.8b upgrade to rail infrastructure as it grapples with national debt

PETALING JAYA A cheaper option to upgrade the railway link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore has been mooted to the Malaysian government, say sources, at less than half the cost of a planned high-speed rail link between the two countries.

The proposal involves upgrading existing rail infrastructure, which will cost an estimated RM20 billion (S$6.8 billion), compared with the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail (HSR) project inked in 2016, which was expected to cost between RM60 billion and RM70 billion.

The proposal will also save the Malaysian government some RM500 million in potential compensation it will have to pay Singapore if it scraps the HSR, as the republic's ongoing preparations for the project will not be disrupted.

According to sources, Malaysia's top advisory body the Council of Eminent Persons has been briefed on the alternative plan that utilises existing double-track infrastructure of the country's rail company Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).

Under the cheaper option however, travelling time between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore will be 130 minutes, more than the HSR's 90 minutes.

Consultants said the travelling time might be reduced further with new locomotives that are able to travel at a higher speed without compromising on safety.

This could be possible if the government were to allow third parties to operate rail lines owned by KTM.

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

The lower costs would be welcome news for the new Pakatan Harapan administration, which is reviewing mega projects entered into by the previous government as it grapples with over RM1 trillion in national debt.

"Cost will be shaved by more than RM50 billion, which is 70 per cent lower compared with (building) the HSR. This does not include the land acquisition cost and possible cost overruns incurred by the HSR project," said a source.

Sources said that central to the upgrading plans of the existing KTM network was improving the double track infrastructure to cater for standard gauge trains. Meter gauge trains run on the existing double track.

Meter gauge tracks are narrower, and require the trains to travel at a lower speed. In contrast, standard gauge tracks are wider and allow trains to travel at a higher speed. They also provide more stability. The travelling speed with standard gauge trains can be about 200kmh.

Sources said that upgrading the existing infrastructure would be cheaper than another suggestion, to extend the Express Rail Link from the KL International Airport to Singapore, at a potential cost of at least RM30 billion.