All aboard for the rail benefits of a high-speed train system

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak in Putrajaya on Dec 13 following an official signing ceremony for the Singapore-KL HSR.

The KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu) railway was historically the lifeline that linked the tin mines and rubber plantations of upcountry Malaya with the political capital of Kuala Lumpur and the shipping and finance centre of Singapore. Beyond KL, the intrepid traveller could find connections to Bangkok and deeper into Thailand.

Even after Singapore and Malaysia went their separate ways in 1965 the train service continued to play its vital role, maintaining the economic, social and cultural links between the two nations.

It still provides a pleasant and relaxing trip for tourists, but no longer meets the needs of busy executives.

Compared with a train journey of at least six hours between KL and Singapore, a short flight or a road trip on the purpose-built North-South Highway are clearly more attractive and time-efficient for business people.

This situation, however, is set to change dramatically.

In July, Singapore and Malaysia committed to the construction of a High Speed Rail (HSR) link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

This new rail line will reinforce and reconnect the long established ties between the two countries and, excitingly, could mark the start of a region-wide high-speed rail network including Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

With the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, these South-east Asian nations are seeking to improve their rail networks and modernise their infrastructure.

Such enhancements to in-country transport capabilities are sure to positively impact the region's citizens.

Easier and faster travel between rural towns and major cities will offer unprecedented mobility, transforming choices for employment, residential location and trade.

Smaller towns would no longer be cut off from mainstream economic activity, and the overcrowding and traffic congestion in the main urban centres could be significantly alleviated.

At the cross-border level, the establishment of the Singapore-Malaysia HSR marks a serious commitment to regional economic integration.

The potential economic benefits of such a development are clear.

At the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, Prime Ministers Lee Hsien Loong and Najib Razak hailed the expected impact of a 350-km journey between the two cities that will take just 90 minutes.

In immediate terms, the project promises to create some 30,000 jobs over the 10-year timeframe.

Beyond that, the railway is expected to deliver substantial benefits to both countries' economies.

At the MOU signing, Mr Najib said: "…if you look in terms of the big picture, this project will bring about a tremendous change in terms of not only Klang Valley, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, but the towns in between: Seremban, Melaka, Muar, Batu Pahat, Johor - all these towns along the way will see a new impetus in terms of their economic development".

Wasting no time in expanding the potential of the Singapore-Malaysia HSR, Malaysia has already agreed with Thailand to explore the possibilities of an additional HSR link between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.


Furthermore, over the next five years, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are also expected to implement transport and other infrastructure investment schemes, including HSR projects in Laos and Thailand that will be linked with southern China, as well as economic zones and industrial parks along the route.

The benefits that would come from improved infrastructure in these countries include the forging of closer trade ties with neighbouring countries, which in turn will boost economic growth.

What makes high-speed rail such an attractive solution to the challenges of speeding up ASEAN's economic development, enhancing trade networks and bringing the region's larger community together?

Granted, high-speed rail projects demand significant initial capital expenditure.

However, the long-term economic, social and environmental benefits are immense.

Our experience working with local governments across Europe and North America in implementing HSR networks connecting population centres with commercial hubs has reaped strategic value for these economies, delivering significant returns on investment.

In addition, the HSR networks became the popular mode of transportation and standard bearer for future transportation modes linking cities, providing journey times that are three hours or less, and offering connections between downtown city centres and smoothly across borders.

More so, while we have had much experience helping European cities face the additional struggle of matching up different railway infrastructure across borders, the Singapore-Malaysia HSR partially escapes this particular challenge by being entirely built from scratch - but still several border issues will need to be addressed.

Today, we have facilitated seamless crossing across 16 international borders, including examples like the border between Europe and Russia that have completely different technical and regulatory contexts; or like the international traffic between France and UK before there was any interoperability harmonisation in Europe and coping with the technical challenges of the Channel Tunnel.

Furthermore, we have the experience to adapt our systems to very different international networks like the ones in the US, China or South Korea.

We have seen repeatedly how high-speed rail provides multiple benefits for the whole eco-system.

As the backbone of a truly multi-modal passenger transportation network, a HSR system supports the smart growth and development of sustainable, interconnected cities and fostering economic development.

This in turn boosts job creation, spurs real estate development and even generates tourism into outlying cities.

High-speed rail is the most environmentally friendly form of mass passenger transport - a HSR requires only half the surface of a road highway and its emission per passenger and per km is only 4g to 10g of CO2 compared to 170g for a plane.

Furthermore, HSR has the best safety record of any form of passenger transport.

High-speed rail is delivering these benefits throughout the world, most notably so in Europe.

It has proven to be a major stimulus to regional economies, creating opportunities for new business development and boosting regional tourism.

For example, the city of Lille in Northern France was once a dying manufacturing hub as industry and population drifted to Paris.

With the building of fast transportation for goods and passengers between Lille and Paris, the city was soon revived.

Today, a number of major companies have now moved their head offices to Lille, with their workers commuting from Paris.

A similar impact is highly desirable for the over-crowded, sprawling cities of South-east Asia.

With its infrastructure already creaking, the region faces significant population growth over the next 20 years, creating pressure to deliver further regional development and greater sustainable long-distance mobility.

High-speed rail is essential for the future development of the east coast, to relieve pressure from the major population centres and help to future-proof the region.

High-speed rail services would help to combat the uncontrolled growth of the major cities, creating closer links with regional communities and aiding the development of smaller towns.

Through the reduced cost of living in regional centres, coupled with drastically reduced travel times, regional relocation becomes a more viable proposition, enhancing workforce mobility and work-life balance.

Photo: Land Transport Authority


South-east Asia's notorious urban congestion will benefit from the HSR's ability to reduce pressure on existing infrastructure, given that it can carry more passengers than any other form of mass transport.

For example, within Alstom's Avelia high-speed trains, the Euroduplex double-decker is carrying today up to 1,268 passengers, while the Airbus A380 carries approximately 525 passengers.

With the inclusion of the latest technology, including Wi-Fi, high-speed rail has also become a preferred form of business travel - with a number of latest model HSR trains boasting top-range meeting facilities.

Achieving these benefits, of course, is no simple matter. In the South-east Asian context, high-speed rail projects will present financial, commercial, managerial, operational and training challenges, to say nothing of the need for the political will to drive such major undertakings.

As it stands, a number of South-east Asia's rail networks are in drastic and immediate need of modernisation.

While the establishment of a region-wide HSR network is at this point in time still more wish than reality, the first stage of such a vast undertaking is committed and under way.

Governments, enterprises and travellers alike are looking forward eagerly to seeing the proof of the concept.

In many ways, the Singapore-KL HSR could very well be South-east Asia's first step towards greater regional co-operation and economic integration.

This article was first published on January 17, 2017.
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