New hopes for old projects
It seems like every year, I write one of these.
Speaks volumes about the changing political environment in Malaysia, really. This time, Anwar is PM and Anthony Loke is Transport Minister again. But what lends cause for optimism is the complete wipeout of Dr Mahathir’s political faction in the recent Malaysian general election, which is likely to give the new PH-BN administration a freer hand in policy instead of resurrecting the old man’s vendettas.
Recent visits by Singaporean political office holders to their Malaysian counterparts also hint at the possibility of improved bilateral relations. If any of those discussions do result in the revisiting of cross-border railway proposals, then by all means. Provided, of course, there’s political stability. They keep talking about it, but as Malaysians know, all talk no action is the order of the day in Malaysian politics.
Before you do anything
I have to begin by clarifying that the issues with the HSR alignment I mentioned all the way back in 2018 still stand. It would be wise for the new PH-BN government to invest in improved local public transportation before talking about the HSR, especially since improved local public transportation will go a long way towards solving the access issues from the HSR to nearby towns.
Of course, both could happen together, in a form of induced demand. The HSR can be built anyway without official plans for last mile transportation, relying chiefly on international passengers to subsidize the service. Closer to the opening date, some enterprising businessman or taxi association could then start a service to bring passengers from the HSR station to the town centre.
In fact, this already happens at KTM Tampin/Pulau Sebang, the nearest KTM station to Melaka, but from which you probably have to order a taxi to meet your train and bring you to downtown Melaka. And due to its coastal alignment, the HSR is even nearer to the downtown than the KTM line, which should make it a much easier ask to start a new transport hub in the environs of the HSR station.
Fortunately, at least, that sort of seems to be happening. For all we meme about Prasarana Malaysia and RapidWhatever’s incompetence, bus ridership has significantly increased in Putrajaya following the transfer of operations to Prasarana, even despite charging for what was previously a free service. If Prasarana still proves more competent than the alternative, especially with the political oversight mechanisms set up by the current federal government, it can be emulated in Melaka and Johor, creating feeder traffic not only to HSR stations but also to existing transport hubs.
Johor, for one, desperately needs it, especially with the upcoming RTS. Or even just as connecting service to cross-border buses, which can and should be happening today. To sidetrack a bit, considering the current property overhang in Johor, it would do well for the Singaporean authorities to do what it can as well; including facilitating applications for bus companies to operate cross-border; to simplify the commute and make living in Johor a suitable alternative pre-2027. This helps relieve pressure on the Singapore housing market.
One idea that was raised by the first PH administration to cut cost was to have the HSR share tracks with the Express Rail Link to KLIA in Subang. Perhaps not all the way to the airport, but you get the point. This could work. California HSR is doing the same thing, sharing tracks with the existing Caltrain line between San Francisco and Gilroy. Speeds on the Express Rail Link and after Caltrain electrification will be roughly similar, anyway, which makes this operation a good benchmark.
Nonstop trains take 28 minutes to get from KL Sentral to KLIA, so subtracting bits off for a shared alignment between Bandar Malaysia and a hypothetical junction before the airport probably means only about 20 minutes is spent in the shared section, still a fair bit lesser than Caltrain and with much fewer stops. Traffic on the ERL may be lighter as well, especially with local service only every 30 minutes off-peak and single-tracking within the KLIA area.
It’s also made easier by the fact that the Express Rail Link uses trains derived from German S-Bahn trains and is also largely built to European railway standards. Consequently, European trains could probably be expected to work out of the box, and the Asian HSR manufacturers could also be asked to scale down their designs to work in European gauge.
Alternatively, MyHSR could work with the Express Rail Link to upgrade their tracks to fit Shinkansen/CRH sized trains. This is also an easy option as much of the Express Rail Link is in open air and the few short tunnels could be expanded in a piecemeal manner. Speed limits can also be raised nearer to KL to permit full 160kph operation all the way to Bandar Malaysia, if not KL Sentral (on a temporary or permanent basis), reducing travel time for all services that operate on that track. Upgrades could be justified even without the HSR, if it is desirable to one day build some form of connection between the ECRL and KLIA.
With more time spent in shared track sections and a shorter alignment to actually build, the need for a 360kph capable central section between the Singapore-Malaysia border and wherever the HSR joins the Express Rail Link tracks becomes more acute; but also more justifiable to meet the 90 minute travel time goal. Perhaps on the Singapore side some speed limit increases could also be nice, although in much of the Singapore sector trains are still accelerating.
Let’s talk capacity
Other forms of cost cutting could also include shortening platforms and using more dense train seating layouts to make up for the difference. Taiwan HSR uses only 12-car 300m long trains compared to the full length 400m used in China, Japan, and Europe, and which was proposed for the KL-SG HSR at the EIA stage. If the KL-SG HSR has iffier estimates and should station cost be a large driver of the HSR price tag, then shorten trains and downsize stations. We could even do 200m long trains and platforms if that works, considering that the economics here may be much poorer than in Taiwan.
As seen below, the now-retired E4 Shinkansen’s non reserved seating areas had this ultra high density 3+3 layout. These were used on 1–2 hour shinkansen commuter services on the Joetsu Shinkansen. I don’t see why it might not be possible to adopt such seating on the KL-SG HSR, especially with travel times in the same range. Tickets can be kept affordable, maybe around the same level as the current KTM services.
It’s not for want of demand, to be fair. As Slainthayer says in the linked tweet above, air tickets between KLIA and Changi start at RM250. Frequency aside, the LCCs also use some of their largest planes — Scoot flies a 375-seater 787–9 (edit 12 April: now A320s but yeah) on the route, and in 2019 before everything shut down, AirAsia used 377-seater A330s — which by comfort might have been the same as the Joetsu Shinkansen non-reserved seats.
HSR at a similar price would already work out cheaper, by virtue of not having to spend extra to get out of KLIA in Sepang, with connecting journeys made possible by MRT and KTM connections at Bandar Malaysia. And on the Singapore end, there’s either the option of Jurong Lake District CRL, or to walk to Jurong East MRT.
Somebody has to win
I’d hazard a guess that a reason why the track-sharing arrangement might not have been palatable to Singapore was likely because it would weaken the Changi air hub. It doesn’t have to.
Track sharing on the Malaysia end can also be reciprocated by permitting track sharing on the Singapore end as well. Interestingly, the CRL is designed with a generous amount of sidings that can theoretically be used for overtaking — known ones at Aviation Park, Loyang, Serangoon North, and according to the CRL2 EIA there may also be passing tracks at Maju and Turf City. While it will be necessary to keep a few of these tracks free for storing disabled trains, that generous amount of provision seems to highlight to me that it might be possible to run some form of timed express overtakes.
But not too many. With the amount of interchanges along the line an intra-CRL express service will almost always never work out for a majority of people. What then? This is where the HSR can come in. The HSR can provide through trains to Changi Airport using CRL infrastructure and these timed overtakes. They might need some changes to be compatible with the CRL systems, but it may be possible to tweak the CRL design to allow HSR trains to operate on the line.
Conceptually this is similar to the Marmaray line in Istanbul or the former Mainland China through trains in Hong Kong. It could perhaps also be a spiritual replacement for CRL express services, making no stops between JLD and the airport. If a means is found to open up this service to local Singapore traffic, those needing to quickly get from east to west may also be able to benefit, in addition to through passengers from Malaysia.
This could be a mixture — a combination of the KL through trains as well as the Iskandar Puteri shuttle service. But I’d count more on the latter as special trains might be needed that can work on both the CRL and HSR infrastructure — apart from power system and maybe signalling adaptations, for shuttle trains it may also be possible to use more commuter-oriented vehicle layouts, such as that used on CRH6 trains in China.
But whether this can happen depends on how liberalized any new HSR proposal is, and whether it gives operators enough flexibility to propose and purchase different types of trains for different services.
Whatever cross-border railway projects are pursued, we need to address the elephant in the room.
The LTA made a preview video on the interior layout of the RTS Link terminal at Woodlands North. It’s massive, to say the least — 10 times the size of a regular MRT station according to them. And justifiably so.
As we can see, much of the space has gone to customs clearance. I would even make a wager that the immigration facilities at the RTS Link terminals are going to be even larger than the bus clearance facilities at Woodlands Checkpoint.
But the blunt truth here is that as two sovereign countries with both entry and exit controls, the Malaysia-Singapore border will never be as fluid as the border between Mainland China and its SARs, which can be integrated due to their status as SARs subordinate to Beijing; or the USA land borders with Canada and Mexico where exit immigration checks aren’t often practiced. Colocation proposals may only produce slight improvements where officials sit next to each other, but we shall see especially with the RTS arrangement.
Some might argue that the planned RTS capacity of 10,000 passengers per hour per direction is too little, they put this against the 300k daily users of the Causeway alone. I don’t think the RTS railway system itself is the problem. Even if they had managed to use TEL trains, at 10,000 passengers per hour per direction, that’s a TEL train every 5-6 minutes — in other words, what you see today on the TEL. The downstream impact, is that every other train, assuming a 3 minute frequency, would be near-impossible to board at Woodlands since it’s filled up with passengers coming from the RTS.
The main problem, I feel, is immigration controls on both sides. The implementation of surge capacity at the Sultan Iskandar Building to handle bus travellers results only in 3000 bus passengers being cleared in three hours — working out to only about a thousand travellers per direction per hour. Granted, this is supposed to be an improvement from previously when the clearance capacity was in the hundreds.
Faster immigration clearance at JB checkpoint after new measures: Malaysian official
About 2,300 vehicles an hour are now able to pass through the immigration clearance, up from 1,400 previously. Read…
This might also be the grim truth behind why they can’t add more Shuttle Tebrau trains too, as Woodlands Train Checkpoint, a much smaller facility, cannot keep up.
But there is hope. The implementation of autogates for Singaporeans at the Malaysian border checkpoints was done quicker than expected. Whilst the usage of the gates is not totally frictionless — you need to submit forms beforehand and pass through manual counters at least once for registration, which is not automatically offered either —reports apparently claim that their new gates are much faster than ICA’s old ones. At least ICA is upgrading their automatic gates too, and there is also reciprocity in the form of Malaysians being eligible for ICA’s Automated Clearance Initiative.