Malaysiakini Letter

Swing the High-Speed Rail to Kota Baru instead

Rosli Khan  |  Published:  |  Modified:

Kota Baru (KB) is in dire need of many infrastructure projects. The capital of Kelantan state has been deprived of much development and is thus lacking in many areas.

With no high-impact projects that it can speak of, the state makes do with poor roads; it has no expressways like other states in the peninsula, and had to live with a dilapidated rail line inherited from the British days that was eventually devastated by the massive flood in 2014. This rail line has been completely unusable for almost two years now.

Currently, Kelantan has no transport master plan to take the state forward, no development strategy of any sort or any economic blueprint to transform its largely traditional agro-based economy. It is not a wonder that no investors are seriously looking to invest in Kelantan despite having vast tracts of land and an abundant and fairly skilled labour workforce.

Without transport infrastructure as the backbone, these two factors of abundant land and cheap labour are not sufficient enough to attract local or foreign direct investment (FDI). Ironically, several federal ministers are actually from Kelantan including one holding the portfolio of International Trade and Industry.

For so long, Kelantan has been neglected economically and the transport sector is one of them; yet the demand for transport generated by the state is very high. Somehow, this factor on high demand is ignored and not considered when it comes to planning decision which are made by the federal government.

In order to understand why transport infrastructure is badly needed in the state, one needs to examine the past statistics that gave rise to the current patterns of transport demand. This basic principle and the underlying equation is very important and commonly used in infrastructure planning or in the formulation of transport facilities that is meant to spur economic growth. Poor transport infrastructure can easily equate to low investment.

A quick look at the demand pattern for transport services to and from Kelantan will likely change the perception that Kelantan does not need a high level of transport investment. Current database is certainly pointing towards the need for an immediate rectification and intervention. For comparison, Kuala Lumpur (KL)/KB transport corridor is a travel market that is as large as the twin cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Whilst the road distance between KL/Singapore is about 350km apart via expressway, KB is about 90km longer through the north-east of KL, a relatively poorer connectivity through an old single-lane rural road of inferior quality and standards, when compared to the North-South Expressway.

This high travel deterrence however does not prevent Kelantanese from travelling south to the Klang Valley where commercial and economic activities seem to be highly concentrated.

Air services

Due to the poor economic situation in Kelantan, many Kelantanese migrated to search for employment and commercial opportunities outside the state. Klang Valley seems to be the popular choice. With a long distance of 440km (via Gua Musang road) from KL, air travel to and from KB provides the quickest way in and out. Thus, a small airport in KB has proven to be very functional indeed.

As this is the only airport in Kelantan, it practically serves not only the entire state (population 1.8 million), but also the northern part of Terengganu and possibly extended to cover the three (3) southern Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani. Given that there is no airport in these three (3) rural Thai provinces, an additional two million population from South Thailand forms a larger catchment area for KB airport.

KB airport can accommodate only up to Airbus 320 size. But majority of the flights are operated by smaller sized aircraft like ATR 72 which has seventeen (17) flights daily from Subang airport to KB. In total, this little airport attracts no less than thirty (30) flights in a day with the balance of ten (10) flights coming from KLIA & KLIA2 and three (3) flights from Penang.

In terms of aircraft capacity, these flights, operated by a mixture of AirAsia, Firefly, Malindo and Malaysia Airlines, have an average capacity of 3,200 seats daily, giving a total of 1.16 million seats yearly.

Apart from air transport supply, obviously there are also buses and coaches that ply to and from KB. More than 50 buses from various locations in the Klang Valley ply the route producing about 1,600 seats every day. This translates to more than half a million seats per year. Despite the fact that there is only one direct road from KL to KB, via an old single lane rural road that links Kuala Lipis and Gua Musang, passenger capacity on offer is rather high.

Between air transport and buses, there are at least 1.6 million seats available yearly. And then there are passenger trips made by private cars daily, which means that in total there are well over two (2) million passengers moving between KL and Kota Baru per direction per year.

All in all, there are about four (4) million passengers travelling between KL-Kota Baru-KL on a yearly basis. From the travel demand perspective, this is definitely a high demand corridor which warrants a serious look in the planning process. This corridor certainly requires a proper supply of a permanent transport infrastructure facility.

Four (4) million passengers is a fairly large market base upon which a high speed rail can be planned and feasibly built. As passenger demand is set to increase further in future years, there is already sufficient number of passengers travelling between KB and KL to warrant a serious consideration for a High-Speed Rail project to be put in place.

No doubt a direct fast rail line alignment between KL and KB will require more technical studies. For instance, it requires an almost straight line track in order to attain and maintain the required high speed. The alignment, which should differ from the old British-built line from Gemas, Negri Sembilan, should start from KL instead.

It will pass through deep forests and many hilly areas which most likely require massive tunnelling works and bridges over ravines and rivers. On top of that it has to maintain a level of height that will be free from rising river waters and off the flood plain. But these are some of the challenges that a project of this nature will entail; as benefits to the populace will also be enormous.

The question now is; between KL/Singapore corridor and KL/KB corridor, which one is our country’s top priority? Or simply put, which corridor should be developed first?

Seoul to Busan model

In terms of national growth, old towns along the corridor of KL/KB, which are devoid of any economic grand plans, will tend to benefit most from this project. Small intermediate towns along the KL/KB corridor like Bentong, Raub, Kuala Lipis, Gua Musang and Kuala Krai, are rural towns that have not seen a similar scale of development as experienced in the Klang Valley.

But they all have potentials and can be turned into intermediate stops for this High-Speed Rail services.

These sleepy towns can be revitalised and will experience phenomenal growth in terms of property development and commercial activities if given the chance to be part of the high speed rail alignment and services. Population will expand; more houses needed and so are social amenities. Urban renewal for these old and dying townships will take place and this piece of infrastructure will rejuvenate the towns and economic activities along the corridor.

Similarly, KB will experience phenomenal growth that was never experienced in the past. High speed rail will create a big impact for KB. Quite likely there will be a property boom in Kota Baru as Kelantanese will chose to shift their homes, commerce and office location back to KB instead of expensive KL. Smaller towns around KB will develop as property prices start to pick up and better quality houses and commercial areas are demanded.

A living proof of this growth trend happened in Busan, South Korea. When a high-speed train, Korean Train Xpress (or KTX), was developed linking Seoul and Busan in 2004, Busan was an unknown city. The high speed train acts as an impetus for Busan to grow and grow. It became a much-needed catalyst for commercial activities in Busan to flourish.

The road distance between Busan and Seoul is about 450km, almost similar to KL/KB. Train speed reached as high as 350km per hour, making air travel redundant as it halved the journey time between the two cities from over six hours to less than three hours only. Busan, as we know today, was completely transformed into a major city attracting many industries as a result of this important transport infrastructure.

More properties developed, commercial centres expanded, job opportunities created and population increased. Busan became an alternative to Seoul as not every South Korean has to live in Seoul; or not every Malaysian has to live in KL. KB can be replicated in a similar fashion as Busan.

New commuter towns

Travelling time by rail is definitely faster and is also safer. Commuters can chose to perform their daily journeys to work by fast train rather than to travel by car. Freedom from road congestion, paying toll and parking charges, are attractive features to many road users, thus modal shift from road to rail will be very likely indeed. This model is a common transport behavioural trait that exist in many developed countries in Europe as well as in Japan and South Korea.

Transport projects, as catalyst for growth, can make a city more prosperous. With high-speed rail, it will be possible to establish commuter towns (with its own commercial centre) of up to 150km distance on either side of a station. Whilst Bentong and Raub could become new commuter towns for KL, Gua Musang and Kuala Krai could be commuter towns for KB.

Using the High-Speed Rail as the main transport backbone will result in population shifting to these towns. A shift in the choice of dwelling locations for some section of the population will take place as houses are more affordable than properties in Klang Valley. Similar quality of housing and amenities outside of Klang Valley will be demanded, improving the quality of life in those areas.

Families can enjoy better quality of life in commuter towns than to remain in congested and expensive areas like KL where a dwelling unit in an apartment is now costing more than a thousand RM for a square foot. Whereas in a commuter town a landed dwelling unit will become feasible and affordable.

New areas can therefore be developed in these commuter towns in order to meet new housing and travel demand. Over a reasonable horizon, a possible spur line from Gua Musang could be extended to Kuala Terengganu, for instance, which will put KL to within 2.5 hours of Terengganu’s capital. Another area of low scale development, Kuala Terengganu, could be enhanced further by the presence of High-Speed Rail especially over its tourism potentials.

Equally important is the impact that High-Speed Rail will have on the domestic freight market. The High-Speed Rail track can be utilised more effectively for long-haul cargoes. There will be a big shift of road transport cargo to rail as cost per tonne by rail will be much cheaper than by road transport. Benefits to be derived from this cargo shift will be tremendous; saving in transport cost, fewer lorries on our roads, roads become safer and road accidents will go down.

Again, towns along the KL/KB corridor will benefit from better distribution of goods resulting from improved rail freight operation. Rail freight logistics will play an important role in keeping prices of consumer and industrial goods down when compared to road only logistics.

Rail freight villages can also be established along the corridor in order to take advantage of the rail connectivity for the long haul. This will bring new economic activities to many rural towns and areas along the corridor.

Passengers will benefit from cheaper, safer and more reliable form of travel over similar distances between KL and KB or vice versa. It is expected that there will be a shift from roads and expressway traffic to rail travel as faster rail journeys will offer better alternative and comfortable trips as compared to road transport.

This shift in travel journeys will eventually result in the reduction of road accidents. This particular benefit is priceless. Any project that will reduce road traffic, thereby reducing road accidents, is absolutely necessary and will benefit the future generation.

As such, the proposed High-Speed Rail project between KL-Singapore warrants serious reconsideration by the government. A more comprehensive re-evaluation process and a comparative analysis in terms of these two preferred corridors and a priority assessment based on economic, social and political benefits have to be undertaken.

DR ROSLI KHAN has been a transport and logistics consultant for over 25 years.

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