High Speed Rail – who gets what, when and how? (and who pays for it?)

Media statement by DAP National Political Education Director and MP for Kluang Liew Chin Tong on 6th April 2016 in Parliament House
Through a Parliamentary Question, I have asked for very specific information from the Government on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail project, namely the projected ridership, operation cost per km, land acquisition cost, construction cost, cost of rail cars and the estimated travel fare.

Dato’ Seri Wahid Omar, Minister in Prime Minister’s Department, gave some very general and vague replies with scant details. He only revealed that the projected ridership in the 10th year of operation (perhaps assuming it will take 10 years to reach a mature period) is 18 million passengers a year, or about 50,000 passengers per day.

Since the feasibility studies has been presented to the Economic Council (EC) in Jun 2013 as revealed by Wahid in his parliamentary reply, the simple questions such as the estimated travel fare, construction cost estimates and land acquisition costs must have already been known to the Government. These basic parameters would have been addressed by the so-called feasibility studies presented to the EC. If not, it would be unthinkable for the EC to make a positive decision on KLHSR without even knowing the various cost components of the HSR project, which is by far the largest infrastructure investment ever in Malaysia.

Nancy Shukri, Minister in Prime Minister’s Department, promised to release the feasibility study when replying my queries during a parliamentary debate in 2013, but the Government backtracked on the promise subsequently.

To gain public confidence and support across the political divide, the government must do more than disclose the feasibility studies.

Based on the only useful answer provided by Wahid, that the KLHSR will have 18 million passenger in its 10th year of operation, I do not want to appear as a skeptic, but the number clearly seems too optimistic. The Eurostar High Speed Rail between London and Paris, has only passed the 10 million passenger mark in 2013, almost two decades after going into operation.

Combined together, the population of London and Paris is almost similar to that of the pair of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. However, the size of economy and the spending power of the London – Paris are obviously a lot larger compared to Kuala Lumpur – Singapore. Is the projection of achieving 18 million passengers a year a wishful goal or substantiated by sound and pragmatic calculations?

Dr. Francis Hutchison of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute asked in a recent paper “The Kuala Lumpur – Singapore High Speed Rail: Costs, Contracts and Complications” on “Where will the financing come from; how will the project be structured and contracted out; and, of course, who will land the construction job?”

The most widely cited estimated cost of HSR project is now at RM 60 billion.

Some of the questions Hutchinson raised in his paper should be discussed publicly.

First, will Singapore and Malaysia contribute equal proportions of the necessary capital?

Second, given the sheer magnitude of the project, it is likely that both governments will need to make a financial contribution of some magnitude. Who pays for what components?

Third, tender – will both countries operate one bidding process and jointly choose a service provider? Or will Singapore and Malaysia carry out their own bidding processes and separately supervise construction on their own soil? Should this be the case, the infrastructure would then need to be joined and integrated — an additional complication.

Fourth, irrespective of whether the project is handled jointly or separately, will the tender(s) go to consortia comprising specialist companies with different expertise, or will the project be broken down into smaller packages that are managed separately?

Fifth, the relationship between the direct KL-Singapore express (direct route) and the commuter service (linking secondary cities) has yet to be finalised.

The Government owes the Malaysian public many answers for the largest ever infrastructure project. Chief among which is this: do we really need a High Speed Rail?

I call on the Government to present a Ministerial Statement in the May session of parliamentary sitting to explain the various issues involved as well as briefing the MPs and the public as the taxpayers will eventually have to bear the costs for generations if the project is not viable in the first place.

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