The high-speed rail dilemma

TRAVELLING some years ago on a high-speed train (HST) between Beijing and Jinan, the capital of Shandong province in China – traversing 419km in just 90 minutes compared with six hours on a conventional train – was a delight.

Apart from speed, the Beijing-Jinan HST has comfortable seats similar to business class on airlines, ultra-clean toilets and is punctual. The Beijing South railway station has designated waiting areas – similar to boarding gates – where passengers wait to ensure they board the correct HSR.

That China has built more than 20,000km of high-speed rail in 2016 – the longest network globally – is due to three attributes. It has a large population, a continental land mass and a near-total state ownership of land that minimises, if not eliminates entirely, the hassle of land acquisition that has bedevilled similar projects elsewhere.

For countries like Malaysia that don't enjoy similar advantages, is the now postponed high-speed rail (HSR) between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore a necessity or, for now, an unaffordable luxury?

Some questions need to be asked about the KL-Singapore HSR.

First, the proposed 350km HSR track between Bandar Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur and Jurong East in Singapore includes six stations in between – Putrajaya, Seremban, Air Keroh, Muar, Batu Pahat and Iskandar Putri.

Will the short distances between some stations allow the HSR to move continuously at high speed? High speed is usually defined as a rate faster than 250kmh.

Based on the distance calculator app, the longest stretch is 117km between Batu Pahat and Iskandar Putri. All other stretches are less than 60km; the shortest is the 35km between Bandar Malaysia and Putrajaya.

If high speed is possible only between Bandar Malaysia or Putrajaya at the start and Iskandar Putri or Singapore at the terminus, will the HSR be financially viable?

Debating with David Fickling in a Bloomberg article, Adam Minter says high passenger demand is a precondition to a successful HSR development.

According to Land Public Transport Commission or SPAD, its Bahasa acronym, annual ridership of the HSR is estimated at 20-22 million in its 10th year of operations. This prompts several questions.

Assuming construction is completed in 2026, is this projected ridership figure realistic? Currently, 14 million live in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Negri Sembilan, Malacca and Johor plus 5.6 million in Singapore.

A more relevant yardstick is the number flying between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Between March 2017 and February 2018, four million individuals flew the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur route, Minter notes.

"… HSR supporters would have us believe that 22 million people will ride the line by 2036. Even cut in half, such a projection is unrealistic," Minter adds.

Another issue bedevilling the HSR is costs. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad claims the price tag is RM110 billion while the previous Najib administration maintains the figure is RM50-70 billion.

Using the lowest estimate of RM50 billion, this suggests the cost of the 650km HSR is a hefty RM14.3 million/km.

Problems dogging HSR projects in California and the UK – cost overruns, construction delay and rising scepticism that benefits outweigh the drawbacks – highlight potential speed bumps.

California's HSR – the first in the US – involves building a 530km line between San Francisco and Los Angeles in Phase 1 while Phase 2 will stretch from Sacramento to San Diego.

Launched in 2008 during the Obama administration, costs were initially estimated at US$30 billion, soared to US$100 billion before construction changes trimmed the figure to US$68 billion while completion of Phase 1 will be delayed for four years to 2033.

Analysts suggest two benefits of HSR – creating new employment opportunities during construction and connecting cheaper housing areas in California to Los Angeles and Silicon Valley which have plenty of jobs but unaffordable housing.

Similarly, UK's high-speed rail project HS2 has been bedevilled by rising costs. In 2012, the cost of HS2 was estimated at £32.7 billion; the figure has swelled today to £55.7 billion.

Based on a 531km track, the HS2 could cost £104.8 million/km – six times higher than the comparable sum for France's LGV Mediterranee's 250km track which was completed in 2001 for £16.9 million/km, UK critics complain.

Cost of UK's HS2 is high because existing train stations needed massive expansion, this wasn't necessary elsewhere, analysts said.

Adding to the discontent, the UK's National Audit Office says there is a 60% chance HS2's first phase will be completed on schedule.

A World Bank study of China's HST network suggests agglomeration benefits lifted economic output between 0.55% and 1% annually. Agglomeration refers to advantages that result when businesses, people or urban areas cluster together.

China's HSR experience suggests building a HSR involves massive short-term costs for long-term benefits. But as noted economist Keynes said: "… this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead."

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com