Disclaimer: The following opinion article represents the personal opinions of the author.
This may surprise some of you who know my previous opinions or my recent article on high speed railway (HSR) link between Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Singapore, but here it comes:
Singapore and Malaysia should not build HSR. Always.
Why the sudden investment? Have I changed my mind and become skeptical of trains? Not at all.
A very fast land transport link between KL and Singapore is absolutely crucial for both countries, and a no-brainer for anyone who can read a map and understand the basic economy.
No, both countries should simply move forward with the times and abandon their affection for the Victorian-era railroad and replace it with something much better, than about to prove its economic viability in just six or seven years.
To make it even more compelling, it is a technology of which Singapore and Malaysia are best positioned to reap the greatest benefits of almost every country in the world: magnetic levitation or maglev.
It will only take 47 minutes
Before you make fun of yourself, shrug your shoulders and walk out of this page thinking, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before, but no one has done it yet!”, Note the following:
Japan is currently building the world’s first long-distance commercial maglev line, crossing about 290 km between Tokyo and Nagoya (comparable to the distance between KL and SG), with the final extension to Osaka in the following years.
This first stage is scheduled to be launched in 2027 (although some delay can be expected) – only six years from now – reducing the travel time from about 300 km to only … 40 minutes.
In fact, the alternative alignments considered by the Japanese government, which covered 350 km (practically exactly the route between Bandar Malaysia and Jurong East) had to take only 47 minutes. That’s half of what the abandoned HSR promised.
And since we’re just a few years away from learning how popular and economically viable a long-distance maglev line can be, it makes a lot more sense to wait and see how it works in Japan.
Given the delays and disagreements between Malaysia and Singapore, the original project would still take until the 2030s to complete. Then, it could have turned out very well that both countries are lagging behind.
For the first time, maglev trains are no longer a fantasy, but a reality deployed for regular use at the birthplace of the original bullet train.
And let’s not forget that …
Malaysia is better than Japan …
… for maglev trains.
It is difficult to imagine more difficult conditions for any mode of long-distance land travel than Japan has: a very mountainous terrain; constant and severe seismic and volcanic activity; extreme seasonal weather conditions (typhoons in autumn, many areas with heavy snowfall in winter).
In comparison, the Malaysian peninsula is in an area of environmental calm, protected from earthquakes in southern Indonesia and typhoons by its proximity to the equator, where such disastrous storms are almost impossible.
Due to the fact that a maglev train reaching speeds of 500 km / h must travel in as straight a line as possible, the Japanese were forced to put 90 percent of the track between Tokyo and Nagoya in tunnels under the mountains, which has increased enormously. both the time and cost of the project.
It is not, however, something that Malaysia and Singapore should worry about.
Second, as I mentioned in my last article, unlike other countries (except for the poorest), neither Singapore nor Malaysia have much of the legacy infrastructure that gets in the way. The construction of the new line would mean the end of the long-distance narrow-gauge KTM along the north-south axis.
Again, this brings us to the demographic conditions in Malaysia, which are also very favorable as most of the country’s population would be well served with only one high speed line.
Because there is no need to invest in additional maglev connections along the east-west axis, the technology makes much more economic sense, as it achieves more, at a cost limited by conditions.
The inherited standard caliber ECRL would provide sufficient connectivity for the less populated east coast, feeding on the maglev spine.
Countries whose populations are more dispersed have occasionally considered the maglev, only to reject the cost it would entail and the infrastructure problems it would cause.
The need to put incompatible roads backwards in different directions to serve multiple smaller urban areas increases the cost and reduces the net benefit of ultra high speed technology (which requires sufficient distances to reach maximum operating speeds for a optimal time saving).
Not so in this case, as both KL and Singapore are large enough to support this line, and the number of intermediate stations would be small enough to maintain service at its full technological capacity (the Japanese Chuo Shinkansen has four stations planned between Tokyo). and Nagoya, while the KL-SG high-speed railway had six, at a distance greater than 60 km).
How expensive would it be?
Fortunately, thanks to Japan we know what to expect.
With the tunnel works, high labor costs, and the need to cut extensive and densely populated areas of Tokyo, the cost of the connection to Nagoya was revised at the beginning of the year to about. 7 trillion yen, or US $ 62 billion.
This equates to A $ 83 billion or RM 258 billion.
We also know that according to the original estimates, the cost of HSR projected by the National Barisan government in 2018 was about RMB 72 billion, which was later revised by the Mahathir administration to over RM 100 billion .
RM 258 billion versus RM 100 billion (the highest estimate) seems to be a big difference. But we must consider, once again, the Japanese conditions. Being forced to run the line in tunnels along 90% of the distance effectively multiplies the cost by a factor of two or more.
With caution, it looks like we could safely estimate about 130 billion RM for the maglev versus 100 billion RM for the traditional HSR, with travel times halved by new technology. Undoubtedly, this makes a much more favorable comparison for magnetic levitation.
Why lock yourself into something that has reached its limits when you can be one of the first to adopt cutting-edge innovation, right after its creators?
The construction of a new metropolis
Klang Valley and Singapore together are home to 14 million people. Imagine if it took less time to get to KL than to cross Singapore by the MRT.
To what extent would this change in terms of how people in both cities live? How much would it help business and tourism? How much would you bring them together, blurring the boundaries between the two countries?
This is not a fantasy, at least not anymore. It is possible and within reach in just over a decade.
By 2030, we should be able to measure the benefits and costs of technology based on Japanese experiences. If the evaluation is positive, and should be, what would really prevent it from being deployed here, apart from political will?
Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. It may turn out that the disappointing withdrawal of the HSR project by the government of Muhyiddin Yassin was a blessing, which allowed both countries to overtake all the others in the very near future.
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Featured Image Credit: IHRA (International High Speed Rail Association)