Singapore-KL high-speed rail link back on the drawing board
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Singapore-KL high-speed rail link back on the drawing board

First proposed before 1997 crisis, new line that would whisk commuters back and forth in 90 minutes could open by 2020.

Talk of a high-speed rail link between Singapore and Malaysia has been in the air for years and it seems like a courtship: when the mood is good, it is on, and when the mood changes, it is off.

No one disputes that there needs to be a better way to travel between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. A flight may take just 45 minutes but the journey to the KL International Airport  takes an hour, or 25 minutes by express rail.

The idea of linking Kuala Lumpur with Singapore via high-speed rail first emerged when Mahathir Mohamad was Malaysia’s prime minister, but was shelved when the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis occurred. Ties between the two countries were not good at the time in any case. Under the next premier, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the project never saw daylight for various reasons.

Last week the current prime ministers, Najib Razak and Lee Hsien Loong, got into the mood to give high-speed rail another go. They jointly declared that by 2020, it would take only 90 minutes to commute between KL and Singapore.

The announcement is certainly a strategic development in bilateral ties and besides improving connectivity, it will usher a new era in strong growth and opportunities, both prime ministers said.

Details are still sketchy but the plan is to have the line completed by 2020, the year that Malaysia has said that it intends to achieve developed-country status. A high-speed rail line would certainly look good on the resume of any country with such aspirations.

If and when the line takes shape, it should be connected to the MRT now under construction in the Klang Valley to provide links within the city, and also to Singapore’s MRT at the other end for maximum convenience for travellers.

If that can be done, then travellers could be in for the sort of seamless ride long available between London and Paris, to name one famous city pair. It now takes at least four hours to drive the 300-kilometre stretch from KL to Singapore minus the traffic jams during weekends and peak hours, and most travellers spend a lot of time checking in and out of airports as well.

The high-speed line would also spur economic and tourism activities and could be a vital component of the Singapore-Kunming rail link that has been talked about for years now. A 90-minute link would cut unnecessary waiting time and link with fast train to Ipoh. A high-speed line from Ipoh to Padang Besar on the border with Thailand may also emerge.

Thailand has its own plans to link its key cities such as Bangkok, Pattaya, Phitsanulok, Nakhon Ratchasima and Hua Hin with high-speed trains by 2018.

By 2022, Thailand wants to extend these modern rail lines to include other cities such as Rayong, Chiang Mai, Nong Khai and Hat Yai. Laos and Vietnam announced earlier that they would build a 220-kilometre high-speed rail line costing US$5 billion, with a Malaysian company building it. China’s Exim Bank is funding another $7-billion high-speed link from Laos to southern China.

The high-speed train for the KL-Singapore sector would be capable of speeds of up to 450 kilometres per hour. Pre-qualification bids for the project may be called by the middle of this year.

Looking back, the original promoter of the KL-Singapore high speed train was the Malaysian construction giant YTL Corporation Bhd, controlled by the Yeoh family. They could be many other hopefuls this time around.

Whoever emerges as the builder, the prime ministers of both countries need to push to make the project a reality this time, and not just more paper on a drawing board.

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