From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Do we really need the HSR?

With the win of the Pakatan Harapan coalition in the recent Malaysian general elections, fresh doubts have been cast on whether the High Speed Rail project will go on.

Let me just start by saying that I don’t think that those concerns are without merit.

When Tun Mahathir and friends won the GE, they promised to review ever mega infrastructure project started by Najib and his crony capitalists. Ordinarily on the blog I wouldn’t care about Malaysian politics and what they do up there (apart from having an unhealthy dose of popcorn, after all PM Lee says we must eat healthy and avoid diabetes), but as a bilateral project inevitably we in Singapore get involved.

In fact, as I write this PM Lee is on his way up to KL to speak with Tun Mahathir. I think it’s important to take his visit in context, and explore why, or why not, the HSR should proceed. This is going to be long, do bear with me.

Build it and they will (not) come

There are many reasons why Najib lost the election — I’m no political scientist so I shan’t theorize too much as to why. One reason that I would guess, however, is the perception that the Najib administration were selling the country out, one piece of land at a time, one development at a time.

Observers (like me) will note how the planned HSR stations in Malaysia are mostly in the middle of nowhere. I’m not going to say that this was not on purpose, and that it was just difficult to maintain a high-speed rail alignment while being as close to the townships it was meant to serve, and that what MyHSR came up with is a good enough compromise. No, I disagree with that.

It has been argued that the HSR must pay for itself (which I don’t disagree with), and how it will pay for itself is through transit-oriented development. In fact, a stake in the Bandar Malaysia development was actually sold to a Chinese-Malaysian joint venture, but that deal eventually fell apart for some reason. The same idea was to be applied to the rest of the stations — in time to come, development around the HSR station would bring life to formerly sleepy mining towns. And this development would all have been done either by the long established development titans in Malaysia, or by Chinese companies. Notice anything yet?

But yet, what Malaysia needs is not new development sprouting up, but investment in the places where people actually live and work, right now. I’m sure you’ll be aware of the dumpster fire that is the Forest City development just across the Second Link, where Chinese government restrictions on capital outflow have stopped mainlanders from investing, and it was out of reach of the typical Malaysian anyway. It’ll be important to prevent a repeat of that.

Literally out of reach of most

Just as an example, I have relatives in Muar, where a HSR station is planned to be built. If I wanted to visit them right now, I would either take a coach from Golden Mile Complex, or head up to Larkin Terminal in JB by SBS bus 170 and then a coach from there, a journey of 4 hours. Ideally, when the HSR station is complete, I should be able to take a train, which would probably shorten my journey to about an hour or so. Easy peasy, or so it seems.

Here’s the problem: The Muar HSR station isn’t near Muar at all. It’s in Pagoh, near the exit from the North-South Highway and at least a half-hour drive from the Muar Bus Terminal — but in a place that can encourage new development, putting money into the pockets of the tycoons and the Chinese. So if I already have a half hour bus ride before I even see a train, what’s the point?

You’ll note that for the most part, this isn’t the case in Japan or Europe. In Europe, high-speed rail is mainly designed as a faster way to link existing points on the European railway network — kind of like space warps in your favourite science fiction series. High-speed trains still use existing downtown stations like the Paris Gare du Nord and Ingolstadt Hauptbahnhof, they just use a faster way to get there. In fact, in Germany there’s only one station, Limburg Sud, served only by high-speed services.

Whereas in Japan, they bent over backwards to bring Shinkansen service to where the people already are. A significant portion of Shinkansen stations (80% at least?) offer a connection to existing regional rail networks, and didn’t just pop up in the middle of nowhere, unlike what MyHSR is proposing to do here. Effort is even taken to bring the Shinkansen downtown, like at Tokyo Station, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Sendai, and Fukuoka. An exception is Osaka, where it was deemed just too difficult to bring the Shinkansen to Osaka Station. Even so, Shin-Osaka is just five minutes away.

The worse offender would arguably be the Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto terminal of the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen, but it was picked mainly because it was already on existing rail lines, and a connection to Hakodate proper was provided by said existing rail lines.

But there’s no such development in Malaysia. The only connections to mainline Malaysian rail networks are at Bandar Malaysia, and at Jurong there’s a 600m walk to Jurong East MRT. Perhaps the KTM branch to Tanjung Pelepas can be diverted to the Johor Bahru (Iskandar Malaysia) station as well… Everywhere else, it’s likely some enterprising businessman will make a big buck offering shuttle bus services. But who’s going to do that?

Even if ticket prices are dirt cheap, it’s going to be hard to convince people who are already there, albeit not very near, to go use the HSR. And if the HSR doesn’t have any users, it’ll be hard to get developers to buy in on the new development opportunities as well. A vicious cycle, as they say.

Terminal 5… and 6… and 7?

With the shuttle services done, now let’s look at the express service. Jurong to Bandar Malaysia in 90 minutes. That’s comparable to flying, even assuming the same starting point of Raffles Place and KL Sentral respectively. It helps that KLIA is actually further away from downtown KL than Bandar Malaysia.

In fact, it was recently reported that in terms of aircraft movements, the Singapore Changi-Kuala Lumpur route is the busiest international air route in the world, just to provide an indicator of the demand that exists along the route. With more than 40 departures a day, mostly using aircraft like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, that’s about one every 24 minutes.

The reason why I even mentioned Terminal 5 was because I was talking to someone a while back, who said that with the building of Terminal 5 at Changi, do we even need the HSR? Surely more flights would help accommodate that demand, wouldn’t it? Well, it’s simple. A 10-car HSR train is proposed to carry about 700–800 passengers. Even assuming an hourly service to KL, that figure is equivalent to four to five 737s/A320s, each of which can seat around 150–180 passengers. Four to five such planes would mean a departure every 12 to 15 minutes — nearly twice the amount of planes on the route now, just to replace that hourly train.

What does this mean? More congested skies and more congested airports. Terminal 5 and the third runway may not be enough. In fact, I view the HSR project as a way to provide an effective increase to the capacity of airports as well, although not by much. For every flight to KL replaced by the HSR, another flight to somewhere further afield can be started. And for Changi, with aspirations to become a regional hub, it’s going to need all the capacity it can get.

The same can be said for KL, though.

Being good neighbours

All those concerns in mind, I think it’s important for us not to be selfish. We must acknowledge that the HSR project, while bringing big dividends to us, is first and foremost Malaysian. And not just KL, it must also bring a concrete benefit to the people along the way — like the farmer whose land got repossessed to build the HSR, or the small-town resident who wants to make his hometown great again.

But yet at the same time it’s also unfair to both countries to place an artificial limit on how much Singapore and Malaysia can develop together by not building the HSR. Like it or not, we have had a long, intertwined history, and the prosperity of one country very much depends on the prosperity of the other.

And even if we do prosper, even if closer links between Singapore and KL do spur an economic synergy between both nations, is it alright for only some to benefit at the expense of others? If we want to be good neighbours, we should help as much as we can, but at the end of the day, whether to go on with the project at all? That’s for Tun Mahathir and his administration to decide.

Not me. Maybe that’s why I’m not cut out for politics or policymaking.



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