Resurgence of rail travel in Malaysia

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The KLIA Express provides fast, clean and reliable electric train service, with journeys to the airport and vice versa taking only 28 minutes (non-stop), and 35 minutes for the KLIA Transit.

The KLIA Express provides fast, clean and reliable electric train service, with journeys to the airport and vice versa taking only 28 minutes (non-stop), and 35 minutes for the KLIA Transit.

By Palau Shavin

Malaysia rail network is a colonial era legacy that is finally shedding its old world (and dare I say, worn out) charm to embrace the modern era.

Originally built in 1885 to ship tin to the ports for export overseas, the network grew to encompass the West Coast Line and the East Coast line, along with several branches, transporting passengers and freight throughout the peninsular (with the exception of Terengganu, which is not serviced by rail).

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In fact, those who used to travel by rail back in the 70s and 80s would remember rail travel being quiet an adventure, with crowded coaches, wailing babies cradled in sarongs, and vendors making their way past selling nasi lemak packets, boiled chick peas and cold drinks. But there was a charm to the whole experience.

Whether you were on a journey to balik kampong, or a business traveller on a budget, the intercity links proved godsend as it allowed you to stretch your legs and rest. Travelling by road, on the other hand, was time consuming and fairly dangerous, due to narrow trunk roads. It could typically take 10 hours to get from Ipoh down to Johor Baru, and you’ll probably end up exhausted at the end of the journey.

But all that changed following the completion of the 774km North-South Expressway in 1994. Suddenly, everyone – from the pakcik in the kampong in his newly minted Proton, to the executive in his sporty BMW – was taking to the road. Travel times tumbled and it was possible to drive to Singapore from KL in just four hours.

All this meant it made little sense to take the train. As passengers abandoned the rail network, so too did freight forwarders, as door-to-door delivery was faster by road in the peninsular. This had major economic impact for farmers and manufacturers. For instance, it meant vegetable farmers in Cameron Highlands could get their produce to Singapore that much faster, helping to ensure fresh greens in the market.

Already at the losing end of passenger and freight loads, rail travel in the country took a further body blow when budget airlines such as AirAsia and Firefly took to the sky in the Noughties. Budget travel especially along the lucrative KL-Singapore route was especially popular, as it meant businessmen could get to morning meetings in Singapore and be back home for lunch or dinner. The time savings for holidaymakers too, was substantial.

But rail travel in Malaysia is slowly getting its mojo back with the introduction of high speed rail.

The first high speed rail link was between KL Sentral and Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). Named the KLIA Express, the service by Express Rail Link Sdn Bhd, whose main shareholder is YTL Corp, kicked off in April 2002. It provided fast, clean and reliable electric train service, with journeys to the airport and vice versa taking only 28 minutes (non-stop), and 35 minutes for the KLIA Transit.

Travelling at around 160km/h (top speed is 176km/h) with a 156 passenger capacity, the service took a while to gain traction, but with the introduction of check-in at KL City Air Terminal, as well as amenities such as onboard WiFi, the passenger load began to increase. ERL recently welcomed its 40 millionth passenger in 2012.

Following this, high speed rail spread northward, with the electrified train service from KL to Ipoh run by KTM subsidiary ETS Sdn Bhd starting in August 2010. Running on an electrified line, the train travels at a top speed of 140km/h and brought a new level of service and comfort to passengers. It also cut rail travel time between the two cities to 2 hours and 20 minutes, with about eight stops. (There was a non-stop service which took less than 2 hours, but this was sadly discontinued.)

But the holy grail for rail travellers remained the KL-Singapore 400km high speed link. And it almost came to pass when, in 2006, YTL mooted a multi-billion dollar proposal for a 300km/h bullet train service between both cities that would cut travel time to just 90 minutes.

However, despite a lot of interest, the plan came to naught when the Malaysian government put the brakes on the project, citing the high cost or RM8 billion.

But the idea refused to die, and was resurrected in 2010, when it was highlighted in the government’s Economic Transformation Programme Roadmap as a high impact project. After a slow start, and a few false steps along the way, the warming ties between Malaysia and Singapore resulted in both governments committing themselves to the rail link in February 2013.

At present, four consortiums are planning to submit bids for the project, which is expected to be completed by 2020 and cost a whopping RM40 billion. The Land Public Transport Commission is still ironing out details of the project, and tenders are expected to be called in by year end.

In a forthcoming article, we will look at how the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail will change life as we know it.

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