High speed derailed
Nearly eight years of plans and negotiations down the drain, or should I say, derailed - the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) is no more, for now.
The grand plan for a 350km high speed rail line was first hatched in 2013. Both nations signed a legally binding bilateral agreement to build the line in 2016, with a target to have trains running by the end of 2026.
The rail line was to have eight stations - Kuala Lumpur, Sepang-Putrajaya, Seremban, Ayer Keroh, Muar, Batu Pahat, Iskandar Puteri, and Singapore, in Jurong East. Travelling from terminus to terminus would have taken just 90 minutes, compared with over four hours by car and five hours end to end by air.
However, things began to unravel in 2018, when Malaysia’s long-standing Barisan Nasional government was toppled by the opposition Pakatan Harapan in a federal election. Fresh at the helm, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad dropped the bombshell that Malaysia would drop the HSR, claiming that it would cost the country too much - RM110 billion (S$36 billion) - with few returns. Then, he backtracked, clarifying that the project was not cancelled, but temporarily shelved.
So, the HSR was put on hold, officially suspended until May 2020, with the operationally ready date pushed from 2026 to 2031. When May arrived, Malaysia asked for another extension of the suspension, to the end of the year. As the 31 December deadline loomed, Malaysia and Singapore tried negotiating changes to the agreement which the former had proposed. Both sides could not reach a consensus by the deadline, so the agreement was allowed to lapse.
The dealbreaker was Malaysia’s proposal to remove the HSR’s systems supplier and network operator, known as the Assets Company (AssetsCo).
Singapore’s Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung told Parliament: “Because neither country has the expertise and experience in operating the HSR, we agreed under the HSR bilateral agreement to appoint a best-in-class industry player through an open and transparent international tender to assume the role of the AssetsCo.
“Once appointed, the AssetsCo will supply the train system, operate the network, ensure that appropriate priority is given to cross-border HSR service vis-a-vis Malaysia’s domestic service, and be accountable to both Singapore and Malaysia.
“To Singapore, the AssetsCo is the centrepiece of the HSR project and is necessary to ensure that the interests of both Singapore and Malaysia are protected.
“This will minimise the possibility of future disagreements and disputes over the long duration of the project, lasting decades.
“Singapore, therefore, informed Malaysia that the removal of the AssetsCo constituted a fundamental departure from the HSR bilateral agreement, and could not be accepted.”
It is only logical that since both nations have no experience in running a HSR, the company running the HSR should be appointed through a transparent, international tender. Malaysia did not want this anymore, and it was right of Singapore to reject this.
Some in Singapore had harsh words for this revelation. Straight-talking, retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan posted on Facebook: “To put the core of the matter bluntly: Malaysia did not want any check on its ability to cream off money.”
I had been looking forward to an HSR in my backyard - all I had to do was take the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) to Jurong East, and then hop on a ride all the way to Kuala Lumpur. In terms of distance, it’s roughly equivalent to travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto.
I know the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) train system will still be around in Malaysia, but an HSR feels... different. It’s a world away.
But that’s how transport history flows, doesn’t it. As the author of Jalan Singapura, I should know. Transport history is never a straight, continuous, linear progression from primitive to advanced. There are starts and stops, unexpected twists and turns. In 19th-century Singapore, it took three decades for railway plans to come to fruition, and when it finally opened in 1903, no one expected it to be removed 108 years later in 2011, upstaged by the MRT system.
Same for the HSR. When the exciting concept was unveiled in 2013, I never expected the Malaysian government to be replaced in 2018, or COVID-19 to strike in 2020, dealing body blows to the economies of both Malaysia and Singapore. Now, it’s all about austerity and closed borders, and flashy, high-speed cross-border travel seems to be the last thing on everyone’s mind.
It’ll be many years before both governments discuss an HSR again, let alone the signing of a deal and the commencement of construction of billion-dollar infrastructure. Will it ever happen in my lifetime? We’ll see. Stranger things have happened in transport history.