Fast again, slow again

From the Red Line
Published in
9 min readFeb 24, 2024


With Anwar’s government claiming that it will back the KL-Singapore HSR, what could be in store?

Now, remember that the first rule of dealing with Malaysia is that nothing is confirmed until contracts are signed. But that the Anwar administration has seen fit to continue with the RFI and perhaps to the RFP processes indicate some level of political commitment.

But whether they will put their money where their mouth is, remains to be seen.

Remember the fallen

In order to see what the RFP players could improve on, we need to return to the HSR1.0 project, warts and all.

HSR1.0’s main issue was that many of the stations were designed for development, surrounded by empty lands and poor non-car connections to the cities and towns they were actually meant to serve. That is, fortunately, improving, with Melaka starting work on a tram system and on-again-off-again talk about LRT in the Greater JB area. For what it’s worth I think the Melaka tram will be completed way faster than anything in JB, with a public inspection already in progress. If they play their cards well, the tram system can be extended to the HSR station.

Secondly, on further examination, the ridership forecasts may be quite off. I keep saying that it is the high air traffic volumes and the countless daily coach departures that help justify the HSR between KL and Singapore. MyHSR, apparently, thought differently, with a large proportion of ridership being to Seremban and Melaka stations, not so much to Singapore. It’s not impossible, especially as shinkansen-style supercommuting becomes possible from Seremban and even from Melaka. And with the safety concerns on intercity coaches, HSR can also be welcomed as a safer alternative. That said, Jurong East still remains the second busiest planned station.

But something doesn’t sit right with me. Should shuttle services even be this infrequent, considering the cross-border demand between JB and Singapore? Or will there really be that few people using the long-distance international service to KL?

tables from MyHSR EIA

In this light, it probably makes sense to reassess whether the JB-Singapore section can reasonably play a role as a second RTS Link. Hong Kong’s Express Rail Link has a short-distance component designed for quick hops to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which make up a significant portion of daily departures at West Kowloon compared to long-haul trains to Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere.

It is probably thus not unreasonable to run a much more frequent shuttle than planned, at 15–20 minute intervals and perhaps 10 minutes in the peak hours. 400m long HSR trains repurposed for shuttle usage with passengers standing in corridors (as I saw in Taiwan) could easily provide several thousand passengers per hour worth of cross-border capacity, close to or perhaps even equal to the current RTS, in addition to non-stop HSR trains.

One door closes, another opens

Meanwhile, another proposal has appeared, this time a Chinese-led one to build a HSR link between KL and Ipoh. It also opens the door towards extending the HSR to Penang.

This will require more flexibility on the side of the KL-SG HSR. It may be desirable for this KL-Ipoh HSR to connect with the KL-Singapore HSR, which may see the KL terminus of the KL-SG HSR moved from Bandar Malaysia to somewhere else, or if they can somehow find a way to bring the KL-Ipoh HSR to Bandar Malaysia.

Serving these additional destinations may also mean the original idea of separating the OpCos into domestic and international operators is no longer feasible. Where once through trains to KL may be enough, now if Penang and Ipoh can be reached by HSR, residents of Penang and Ipoh may want to take a HSR direct from Singapore. These are larger cities than Melaka, which improves the case for providing other forms of northbound service instead of just the direct 90min KL service. Maybe those trains can be extended to Ipoh and Penang. Maybe all-stop trains can serve Singapore too.

What about southbound? Well, Eurostar has the answer. Eurostar serves other places that are not equipped with UK border controls by stopping at Lille, allowing passengers to pass through border controls there before they actually enter the UK. We can consider doing the same here, with trains stopping at the Iskandar Puteri station to facilitate immigration clearance. After which, they can just take the next train, for the ~15 minute hop to Jurong East compared to the 1.5h ride between Lille and London.

But in order to make this work, amended terminal designs and a much more liberal operating model may be necessary; redesigning terminals may take time too. This isn’t possible under the strict separations of responsibility within HSR1.0, but we’ll see if any of the seven consortia come up with anything similar. Even Eurostar and Thalys have merged; their respective roles being similar to that of OpCo International and OpCo Domestic respectively.

The Singapore problem

Those were not the only issues with HSR1.0, with Singapore largely blaming Malaysia’s refusal to keep the Assetco being the main impasse behind the HSR1.0 termination.

If the Singapore government continues to insist on this in any restated HSR proposal, it could well kill the project once again. Singapore’s previous stance on the AssetCo is no longer viable, with the PPP partner now becoming a key stakeholder in the HSR operations. The PPP is the AssetCo now, so there will be no choice in the matter. And Singapore likely cannot expect to have a say in deciding who Malaysia’s PPP partner will be.

Of course, if it so happens that Temasek bankrolls the winning consortium of the PPP, Temasek can nudge the PPP into taking actions which can help the Singapore side of the argument. And it may be possible that Temasek can work with the MFA and the MHA in achieving a compromise between operational security of the border, and commercial flexibility. But otherwise, while MyHSR and the PPP partners may be able to keep HSR1.0’s immigration clearance concept, it will still be likely that the financing and organizational structures of the deal will be take-it-or-leave-it for Singapore.

That said, the Singapore government has been mostly able to innovate better than Europe, in reducing the friction of the hard border. Near-touchless facial recognition immigration clearance removes much of the speed bottlenecks, and is already necessary for the RTS to succeed anyway. ICA’s plans to allow non-foreigners to use automated clearance will also make it possible for all Malaysians and even Thais to use automated clearance to enter Singapore.

The second issue is procurement. At least one of the consortia — the Berjaya Rail consortium — includes members such as Hitachi Rail STS (Italian, despite the Japanese overall owner) and Hyundai Rotem, apart from KTMB. What may happen here is that the use of open European signalling standards may permit other operators to join in, bringing in their own trains that are compatible with the system. For what it’s worth, the Japanese, known for delivering closed turnkey systems, have opted out of this project.

Money not enough

Is that the only reason why, though? The Japanese don’t want to get involved because of funding risks; and nearly every other RFI respondent has allegedly tried to make the case for the Malaysian government to provide some form of support for the HSR.

Analysts more experienced than me say that this may take several forms; be it by providing land, or making up revenue for ridership shortfalls, or other means. Even Berjaya Rail, which has links to the Johor Sultan (and currently Malaysia’s King) is asking for ridership guarantees; despite common sense saying that it may be able to cross-subsidize HSR development and operations with big business interests in Johor being so closely intertwined with the fate of the HSR.

But can fare revenue be enough to significantly support the HSR too?

It might, but only if because Singapore Changi’s airport taxes are high enough to be uncompetitive for short routes. Already Changi’s airport taxes alone, before considering any airfares, are more expensive than a first class ticket on the Jakarta-Bandung HSR. Assuming the cheapest KL-SG tickets are double that of the cheapest tickets on the Jakarta-Bandung HSR, it would still be much cheaper than flying out of Changi. They might even get away with charging triple, especially with proposed increases to the tax.

For the local services, pegging to ETS fares (either the same fares as non-stop ETS Platinum, maybe with some premium) may also be worth it; the ETS is constantly sold out, which means Malaysians may be able to pay the fares if the fare for the local services are tied to ETS levels.

But whatever it is, the HSR will likely have to rely on volume. Short distances and high speeds can work together to have significantly reduced travel times; it may mean that very dense seating, or even standing passengers, may be tolerable. Moves can also be made to rationalise station designs; Japanese shinkansen stations are pretty similar in quality to the MRT Putrajaya Line’s “cost-optimized” station designs.

All problems are local

One more spanner in the works is that it is very likely that Singapore will not be connected to the HSR in the initial years, which could also dampen the financing of the HSR without the lucrative KL-SG market. Whilst the proposal proceeds with land acquisition and construction activities on the Malaysian side, Singapore will have to first negotiate the new HSR deal, then begin its own procurement activities. Even if we can save some time by dusting off the old HSR1.0 plans, it will still take time to get the machine up and running.

This is in contrast to the RTS, where the entire process was likely just paused; not long after signing the necessary agreements needed to resume work on the RTS, the LTA was able to award the construction contract for the RTS terminal likely because everything was just kept on the warmer; this only took a few months in contrast to the year-long tender process for MRT works. Excavation works had even been done during the construction of the TEL Woodlands North station; it left a large gaping hole in the ground but made it much easier to resume work for the RTS.

But with the HSR, it will take time to prepare the land and award construction contracts. If the HSR1.0 plans are reused, the underground terminal on the Singapore side will also take a longer time to build, especially since excavation works are likely not done, unlike the RTS. What this means is that the HSR operator will likely be unable to offer direct KL-Singapore trains in the initial years; it could try to offer KL-JB direct trains with the immigration co-location up and running and dedicated bus shuttles to Singapore, but that might be complex.

Or perhaps Singapore could agree to subsidize the operation in the short term and make up for lost revenue without direct trains to Singapore; but that may be a significant cost that we are unlikely to be willing to pay.

This may make the value proposition even more marginal. Even Taiwan’s HSR had to be bailed out by the Taiwanese government in its early years, and with the Malaysian government committing political talk but not actual moolah, things may not work out. Anything can happen, though, so we’ll see what does, just like how the Taiwanese HSR is now breaking records 17 years after opening. And in Taipei, while the THSR did not reach Taipei Main Station on Day 1, it was still possible to take the MRT to Banqiao to join the HSR; Taipei Main Station was served by HSR a mere 4 months later.

To me, I think the ultimate business case is out of Malaysia’s control. While they may be persuaded to contribute some support be it in land or money, I suspect much will hinge on how badly Singapore wants the HSR. It depends on whether we can view this as a means to reduce congestion in our airspace and our land border crossings, and provide additional long-haul capacity at Changi Airport, by replacing short-distance flights and considerable amounts of cross-border bus services with rail.

Whether Malaysian politics will accept such large Singaporean funding contributions, I don’t know.



From the Red Line

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.