High-speed railway perils and promise

High-speed railway perils and promise

SINGAPORE - Excitement is high over the proposed Malaysia-Singapore high- speed railway (HSR).

But first, significant hurdles need to be overcome.

The two countries must decide on pressing fundamentals. These include the ownership, financing and operating models, as well as the project structure.

Then come decisions such as route alignment, number and location of stations along the way, form and location of checkpoint, and finally, location of depot and terminal stations.

Terminal stations should ideally be in the two city centres, as it would provide the best accessibility to travellers. But this may not be technically feasible or cost-effective, as both city centres are highly built up.

Already, Malaysia has identified Sungai Besi, a location 15km from the Petronas Twin Towers, as a site. That would be about the same distance that Jurong East (a location that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seems to favour) is from Singapore's Central Business District.

If the two terminals are in Sungai Besi and Jurong East, a door-to-door commute by HSR is projected to be 190 minutes - still considerably faster than 255 minutes by air.

But these are details to be ironed out further down the line.

First and foremost, the two governments must be convinced that an HSR will be equally beneficial to both Singaporeans and Malaysians for generations to come. And they must have the political will to see the project through.

Indeed, besides financial capability, it is political will that is powering China's HSR programme. For cross-border projects, it was the political will of the Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand administrations that paved the way for the London-Paris HSR.

If Thatcher and Mitterrand could get the English and French to work together, despite the two countries' legacy of bitter rivalry, there is hope yet for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR. It is a project the two sides have been mulling for 20 years now.

If it gets off the ground, it could potentially form the first leg of a South-east Asian network that links all the way up to China.

A look at the history of HSRs across the globe shows that worldwide, they do not seem to have a strong or clear proposition for many countries. Ever since the first line started running in Japan 50 years ago, only 15 other countries have followed suit with their own systems. In comparison, 126 metro systems were built in 50 countries over the same period.

But once overcome, the benefits are many.

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