By 2030, the travel time between KL and S’pore could be reduced to just 47 minutes

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Disclaimer: The following opinion piece represents the author’s personal views.

This may come as a surprise to some of you who know my previous opinions or my recent article on the high-speed rail (HSR) connection between Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Singapore, but here it is:

Singapore and Malaysia are not expected to build HSRs. Never.

Why the sudden reversal? Did I change my mind and became skeptical about trains? At all.

A very fast land transport link between KL and Singapore is absolutely essential for both countries and a breeze for anyone who can read a map and understand basic economics.

No, both countries would simply have to keep up with the times and abandon their affection for the Victorian-era iron railroad and replace it with something much better, which is about to prove its 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 reap the greatest benefits from virtually every country in the world: magnetic levitation or maglev.

It will only take you 47 minutes

Before you taunt, shrug your shoulders and leave this page with a thought “yes, yes, we’ve heard this before, but no one has done this yet!”, Please consider the following:

Japan is currently building the world’s first commercial long-distance maglev line – spanning some 290km between Tokyo and Nagoya (comparable to the distance between KL and SG), with the final extension to Osaka in the coming years.

This first phase is expected to launch in 2027 (although some delay can be expected) – just six years from now – reducing travel time by around 300km to just … 40 minutes.

In fact, the alternative alignments considered by the Japanese government, covering 350 km (practically exactly the route between Bandar Malaysia and Jurong East) should have taken only 47 minutes. This is half of what the abandoned HSR promised.

And since we’re only a few years away from learning how popular and economically viable 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 2030 to complete. At that point, it could very well have been discovered that both countries are lagging behind the times.

For the first time ever, Maglev trains are no longer a fantasy, but a reality used regularly in the birthplace of the original bullet train.

And let’s not forget that …

Malaysia is better than Japan …

… for Maglev trains.

It’s hard to imagine more difficult conditions for any long-distance overland travel mode than Japan faces: very mountainous terrain; constant and severe seismic and volcanic activity; extreme seasonal weather conditions (typhoons in autumn, many areas with heavy snow in winter).

By comparison, the Malay Peninsula sits in an area of ​​environmental calm, protected from earthquakes by Indonesia in the south and from typhoons by its proximity to the equator, where such dire storms are nearly impossible.

Image Credit: WikiProject “Tropical Cyclones” and USGS

Due to the fact that a maglev train reaching speeds of 500 km / h has to travel as straight as possible, the Japanese were forced to put 90% of the track between Tokyo and Nagoya in tunnels under the mountains – which both the time and cost of the project have increased enormously.

However, that’s not something Malaysia and Singapore need to worry about.

Secondly, as I said in my latest article, unlike some other countries (save the poorest ones), neither Singapore nor Malaysia have many legacy infrastructures 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 a single high-speed line.

Since there is no need to invest in additional maglev connections along the east-west axis, the technology makes a lot more economic sense, as it accomplishes more, at a cost limited by conditions.

The legacy standard gauge ECRL would provide enough connectivity for the less populated east coast, powering the maglev plug.

population density in Malaysia
Population density in Peninsular Malaysia circa 2010, Image Credit: Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (sedac)

Countries whose populations are most dispersed have occasionally considered maglev, only to hesitate at the cost it would entail and the infrastructural problems it would cause.

The need to lay incompatible tracks backwards in different directions to serve multiple smaller urban areas amplifies the cost and reduces the net benefit of ultra-high speed technology (which requires sufficient distances to reach peak operating speeds for optimal time savings ).

Not so in this case, as both 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 capability (Japanese Chuo Shinkansen has four stations planned between Tokyo and Nagoya, while the KL-SG high-speed railway had six, at a distance greater than 60 km).

How expensive would that be?

Fortunately, thanks to Japan we know what to expect.

With the tunneling works, high labor costs and the need to cut large and densely populated areas of Tokyo, the cost of the link in Nagoya was revised earlier this year to around 7 trillion yen, or US $ 62 billion.

This equates to S $ 83 billion or RM258 billion.

We also know that according to original estimates, the cost of HSR predicted by the Barisan Nasional government in 2018 was around RM 72 billion, later revised by the Mahathir administration to over RM 100 billion.

RM258 billion versus RM100 billion (at the highest estimate) seems to be a huge difference. But we must, once again, consider the Japanese conditions. Being forced to walk the line through the tunnel for 90% of the distance actually multiplies the cost by a factor of two or more.

JR Central Unveils Tunnel for Maglev Shinkansen Line |  The Japan Times
Inside the future magnetic levitation tunnel in Japan / Image credit: Japan Times

Mistaking for caution, it seems we could safely estimate RM 130 billion for maglev versus RM 100 billion for traditional HSR, with travel times halved by the new technology. This certainly makes a much more favorable comparison 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, right after its creators?

The creation of a new metropolis

Klang Valley and Singapore together are home to 14 million people. Imagine if it took less time to reach KL than to cross Singapore on the MRT.

How much would that change in terms of how people live in both cities? How much would it help business and tourism? How much would it unite them, blurring the borders between the two countries?

This is not a fantasy, at least not anymore. It is possible and within reach in just over a decade.

By 2030, we should be able to assess the benefits and costs of technology based on Japanese experiences. If the assessment is positive – and it should be – what would really stand in the way of unfolding it here, other than political will?

Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. It may very well turn out that the disappointing withdrawal from the HSR project by the government of Muhyiddin Yassin has been a blessing, which has enabled both countries to surpass all others in the very near future.


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Featured Image Credit: IHRA (International High-Speed ​​Rail Association)

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