Disclaimer: The following opinion piece represents the personal opinions of the author.
It may surprise some of you who are familiar with my previous opinions or my recent article on the High Speed Rail Link (LSR) between Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Singapore, but here is:
Singapore and Malaysia should not build high speed trains. Already.
Why this sudden turnaround? Have I changed my mind and become skeptical of trains? Not at all.
A very fast ground transport link between KL and Singapore is absolutely essential for both countries – and a no-brainer for anyone who can read a map and understand basic economics.
No, the two countries should just move with the times and let go of their affection for Victorian-era iron rail and replace it with something much better, which will prove its economic viability in just six to seven years.
To make it even more compelling, it’s a technology that Singapore and Malaysia are best placed to make the most of, just about any country in the world: magnetic levitation, or maglev.
It will only take 47 minutes
Before you laugh, shrug your shoulders and leave this page thinking “yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before, but no one’s done it yet!” Please consider the following:
Japan is currently building the world’s first long-distance commercial maglev line – running approximately 290 km between Tokyo and Nagoya (comparable to the distance between KL and SG), with the ultimate extension to Osaka in subsequent years.
This first stage should be launched in 2027 (although some delay is to be expected) – in just six years – reducing the journey time of around 300 km to just… 40 minutes.
In fact, the alternative routes considered by the Japanese government, covering 350 km (roughly exactly the route between Bandar Malaysia and Jurong East) were supposed to take just 47 minutes. This is half of what the abandoned TGV promised.
And because we’re only a few years away from learning how popular and economically viable such a long-distance maglev line can be, it makes a lot more sense to wait and see how it works for Japan.
Given the delays and disagreements between Malaysia and Singapore, the original project would still take until the 2030s to be completed. By then, it could very well be that both countries are late.
For the very first time, maglev trains are no longer a fantasy but a reality deployed for regular use in the birthplace of the original high-speed 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 overland travel than those faced by Japan: very mountainous terrain; constant and intense seismic and volcanic activity; extreme seasonal weather conditions (typhoons in autumn, many areas with heavy snowfall in winter).
By comparison, the Malaysian peninsula sits in an area of environmental calm, protected from earthquakes by Indonesia to the south and typhoons by its proximity to the equator, where such catastrophic storms are nearly 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 enormously increased both the time and the cost of the project.
This is not something Malaysia and Singapore need to worry about, however.
Second, as I mentioned in my last post, unlike other countries (except the poorest), neither Singapore nor Malaysia has a lot of legacy infrastructure that could get 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 back to Malaysia’s demographic conditions which are also very favorable as most of the country’s population would be well served with just 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 accomplishes more, at a cost limited by conditions. .
The old standard gauge ECRL would provide sufficient connectivity for the less populated east coast, feeding the backbone of the maglev.
Countries with more dispersed populations have sometimes considered maglev, only to shrug off the cost it would entail and the infrastructure problems it would entail.
The need to lay backward compatible tracks in different directions to serve several smaller urban areas amplifies the cost and reduces the net benefits of ultra-fast technology (which requires sufficient distances to reach peak operational speeds for optimal time savings. ).
This is not the case in this case, as KL and Singapore are large enough to support such a line, and the number of intermediate stations would be small enough to keep the service at its full technological capacity (Japanese Chuo Shinkansen has planned four stations between Tokyo and Nagoya, while the high-speed train KL-SG had six, at a longer distance of 60 km).
How much would it cost?
Fortunately, thanks to Japan, we know what to expect.
With the excavation works, high labor costs, and the need to traverse large, densely populated areas of Tokyo, the cost of the connection to Nagoya was revised earlier this year to around 7 trillion yen, or $ 62 billion.
This equates to S $ 83 billion or RM 258 billion.
We also know that, according to initial estimates, the cost of TGV expected by the Barisan Nasional government in 2018 was around RM72 billion – this amount was later revised by the Mahathir administration to over RM100 billion.
RM258 billion versus RM100 billion (at the highest estimate) seems like a huge difference. But we must, once again, consider the Japanese conditions. Being forced to run the line through tunnels 90 percent of the distance effectively multiplies the cost by a factor of two or more.
Out of caution, it seems we can safely estimate around RM 130 billion for maglev versus RM 100 billion for traditional TGV – with journey times cut in half by the new technology. This certainly makes a comparison much more favorable for magnetic levitation.
Why lock yourself into something that has reached its limits when you can be among the first to adopt cutting-edge innovation, just behind its creators?
The construction of a new metropolis
The Klang Valley and Singapore are home to 14 million people together. Imagine if it took less time to reach KL than to cross Singapore on the MRT.
How much would this change the way people in the two cities live? How would this help businesses and tourism? How close would that bring them together, blurring the lines between the two countries?
It’s not a fantasy – not anymore, at least. It is possible and within reach in just over a decade.
By 2030, we should be able to assess the benefits and costs of the technology based on Japanese experiences. If the assessment is positive – and it should be – what would really oppose its deployment here, other than political will?
Every crisis is a disguised opportunity. It may well be that the disappointing withdrawal from the HSR project by Muhyiddin Yassin’s government has been a blessing, allowing both countries to get ahead of everyone else in the very near future.
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Image Credit Featured: IHRA (International High-Speed Rail Association)
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