Saturday, 1 August 2020

Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link Project gets green light; operations expected to begin at end-2026

The light rail transit system will improve connectivity and ease Causeway congestion
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2020

Singapore and Malaysia officially resumed the project for the cross-border Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link between Woodlands and Johor Baru with a ceremony to mark the occasion, one day ahead of a final deadline following multiple postponements.

Not surprisingly, it will get rolling later than planned - service is targeted to start end-2026 - with several changes woven in. The RTS, for example, will now be a light rail transit (LRT) system.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post yesterday evening that the RTS Link would improve connectivity and ease congestion along the Causeway when it is ready.

"So it was apt that we marked this milestone with a bilateral ceremony at the Causeway, which has connected our two countries for almost a hundred years."

PM Lee, along with Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, witnessed the ceremony at which Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung and his Malaysian counterpart Wee Ka Siong marked the official resumption of the project.

The 4km line, previously slated to be operational by end-2024, will connect passengers between Johor's Bukit Chagar terminus station and the Singapore terminus in Woodlands North. The Customs, immigration and quarantine facilities will be co-located so passengers have to clear immigration only once, at the point of departure.

Both countries also reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the rail link is well-integrated with local transport networks. The Singapore terminus is at Woodlands North on the Thomson-East Coast (TEL) MRT Line, which will serve 32 stations from Woodlands to Bedok by 2024.

Several key changes have been made to the project.

The RTS Link will now be a standalone LRT system, instead of using the same trains and systems as Singapore's TEL. As a result, the RTS Link will no longer use the existing TEL depot at Mandai. A new depot will be built in Wadi Hana, Johor Baru. The cross-border link's capacity remains unchanged at up to 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Transport said that the project would use an LRT system similar to that of a medium-capacity MRT system in Singapore and it would be capable of meeting the peak capacity of 10,000 passengers an hour, in each direction.

Separately, Malaysia has changed its infrastructure company (InfraCo) to a wholly owned subsidiary of Mass Rapid Transit Corporation. The Land Transport Authority remains as Singapore's InfraCo.

The rail link is expected to bring relief to the Causeway, which 300,000 people used to cross daily before the pandemic struck.

The signing turns the page on a project which was agreed to by leaders of both countries a decade ago, but has seen several delays.

Both countries signed a binding agreement to build the link in January 2018, but key project deadlines were missed after the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad came to power in Malaysia less than five months later.

The deadline to come to new terms was subsequently pushed back four times at the request of Malaysia. The last suspension, to the end of this month, was due to factors such as COVID-19 and Malaysia's change of government.

Asked if he was confident that the RTS Link would begin ferrying commuters by 2026, Mr Ong said: "We work with whatever government is in charge and we also, as a country, deeply respect and abide by the agreements (we sign) and I'm sure our partner countries are the same."

PM Lee said in his Facebook post: "The pandemic has shown how deeply entwined our two countries are. Even in these difficult times, we continue to work together, and look forward to doing still more together."

Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) discussions ongoing, both sides hard at work to meet year-end deadline
PM Lee hopes to finalise details of high-speed rail link to KL by year end
He says basic thinking behind rail project hasn't changed, and Republic is studying Malaysia's proposals on changes
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2020

Singapore and Malaysia are in discussions on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project, and hope to come to a conclusion by the end of the year, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong .

"The Malaysian side has given us certain proposals on the changes, which we are studying carefully and we'll discuss further with them," he told reporters after a ceremony at the Causeway to mark the resumption of the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link.

The basic thinking behind the HSR - that Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are two cities with significant links, and improved transportation connectivity will lead to more business and closer ties - remains true, said PM Lee.

The 350km rail line would cut travelling time between Malaysia's capital and Singapore to 90 minutes, compared with more than four hours by car. It would also halve the current end-to-end travel time of about five hours by aeroplane.

With the completion of the RTS Link agreement yesterday, PM Lee said he was optimistic that Singapore and Malaysia could likewise finalise the details for the HSR project by the year end.

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad had initially wanted to scrap the HSR as part of a review of his country's mega projects, in a bid to trim a RM1 trillion (S$325 billion) national debt.

The Pakatan Harapan administration later clarified that it wanted to delay the start of construction, as a cancellation would have entailed a high amount of compensation under the HSR agreement.

The project was then shelved for two years until May 31, when then Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that Singapore had, in the spirit of bilateral cooperation, agreed to a final extension of the suspension period for seven months till the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Singapore's new Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday that the two countries will aim to start work on the RTS Link between Woodlands and Johor Baru as soon as possible.

This partly depends on the pace of preparatory work as well as availability of workers, given the prevailing COVID-19 situation, Mr Ong noted.

"We want to start work as soon as we can and, importantly, to complete by end of 2026," he said.

Malaysian media reported last week that construction work on the RTS Link could begin in January next year, once approvals are obtained from the relevant authorities of both countries.

Mr Ong said he has spoken with his Malaysian counterpart Wee Ka Siong on finding ways to strengthen bilateral transport ties while keeping virus transmission low, and that he also held a short meeting with Malaysia's Senior Minister Azmin Ali about the possibility of resuming the HSR project.

In a joint statement issued after the ceremony, both countries said they had agreed on three key agreements to resume the RTS Link, including a joint venture to form an operating company.

Singapore rail operator SMRT Corporation has signed a joint venture agreement with Prasarana Malaysia to form this company, which is named RTS Operations.

This Singapore-incorporated company will design, build, and finance the RTS Link operating assets, including trains, tracks and systems, said SMRT and Prasarana in a joint media release.

It will also operate and maintain the rail line between Bukit Chagar in Johor Baru and Woodlands North in Singapore.

One key change to the project is the switch to an LRT system like those used in Malaysia, instead of using the same trains and rail systems on Singapore's Thomson-East Coast Line, which is run by SMRT.

A Singapore Ministry of Transport spokesman yesterday said this LRT system is similar to a medium-capacity MRT line here, such as the upcoming Jurong Region Line.

Asked if any of Singapore's existing RTS contracts will be affected or cancelled due to the changes, the spokesman said: "The LRT system is compatible with our original infrastructure design based on the TEL system, with minor design updates to cater to the change of operating systems."

LRT system for RTS Link might cost less even with new depot: Experts
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2020

The move to switch to a Light Rapid Transit (LRT) system for the cross-border link between Singapore and Malaysia was made to save on costs, even after factoring in the building of a new train depot in Malaysia, said transport experts.

In officially resuming the Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link yesterday, both countries had announced it would adopt an LRT system instead of using the same trains and rail systems as Singapore's Thomson-East Coast MRT Line (TEL).

National University of Singapore (NUS) transport researcher Lee Der-Horng said the most significant difference between Malaysia's LRT system and the TEL is the rolling stock, or type of train, used.

He said: "Even though building a new depot adds to the cost of the project, the cost saving from the smaller trains could compensate for the expense, and the operation cost can also be less."

Both countries had announced that the RTS Link will no longer use the existing TEL Mandai Depot, with a new depot to be built in Wadi Hana, Johor Baru.

A Singapore Ministry of Transport (MOT) spokesman yesterday said the LRT system will be similar to a medium-capacity MRT line in Singapore, like the upcoming Jurong Region Line.

She added that based on the LRT system's maximum capacity of 10,000 passengers an hour in each direction - the same as the TEL system - the frequency of trains could be between four and six minutes. A one-way journey will take about five minutes.

She also confirmed that there will be no light maintenance facility in Bukit Chagar as was initially planned, or in Singapore.

Singapore Management University transport economist Terence Fan noted that an MRT system is more costly in terms of initial investment and the total operating cost per year.

However, Singapore University of Social Sciences transport researcher Park Byung Joon made the point that Malaysia's LRT system was not the best way to deal with a high volume of people.

"If the demand remains low, such as a few thousand commuters a day, then the LRT system is the wiser choice," he said.

"If the expected volume hits close to the maximum capacity every day, then there might be a concern that the overall cost might go up due to wear and tear."

The cost of the project was a key reason for its delay. Last November, Malaysia proposed amending the scope and structure of the project to cut costs by 36 per cent.

The experts agree that having the depot in Malaysia instead of Singapore would mean lower costs, including land acquisition and labour costs.

Professor Lee said having a new depot in Wadi Hana could be the most feasible solution. As the RTS Link will have different rolling stock from the TEL, the operation system would be incompatible with it in terms of the signalling and power systems, he said.

In terms of commuter experience, Assistant Professor Raymond Ong from NUS said some people might have the misconception that the LRT system the RTS will use is similar to the Bukit Panjang LRT, which is much smaller than the MRT and has been saddled with reliability issues.

The LRT used in the RTS Link should be similar to the LRT system used in the Ampang Line in Klang Valley, said Prof Ong. This has a similar capacity to the Thomson-East Coast Line, but runs at a slower speed.

The line is now slated to begin operating by end-2026, instead of by the end of 2024.

Fares on JB-Singapore RTS Link 'will not be costly', says Malaysia's transport minister, as project officially resumes
By Nadirah H. Rodzi, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2020

Fares on the much anticipated cross-border Johor Baru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link will be affordable as prices will be set with the low-income group and daily commuters in mind to make the project viable, said Malaysia's Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong yesterday.

He added that ticket prices will be the same on both sides of the Causeway, factoring in conversion rates.

SMRT Corporation and Prasarana Malaysia, joint venture partners for the project, have already settled on the fee structure.

Speaking to reporters in Johor Baru after a ceremony at the Causeway to mark the official resumption of the project, Dr Wee said: "Whatever we decide here, say X amount in Malaysia, Singapore will charge the same in Singapore currency. It will not be costly as we need to consider the low-income group and daily commuters to make this project viable."

The fares will be announced before operations begin, he added. The project is scheduled for completion in 2026.

The 4km RTS Link will connect Woodlands North MRT station on Singapore's Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL) to Bukit Chagar, a planned elevated terminal in Johor Baru.

The current KTM shuttle train service will cease operations within six months after the RTS Link becomes operational.

Both countries had acknowledged a need to alleviate traffic congestion at the Causeway, which facilitates about 300,000 crossings daily.

The RTS Link will continue to feature the co-location of Customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) facilities, so that passengers undergo CIQ clearance only once - at their point of departure.

"If you're a Singaporean commuter, you will only need to get clearance in Woodlands. For Malaysian commuters, you will be cleared at Bukit Chagar," Dr Wee said.

The minister added that the journey would take only five minutes and, during peak hours, trains will be deployed at an interval of 3.6 minutes.

This would allow up to 300,000 passengers to be transported per day as the RTS Link has a capacity of 10,000 commuters.

It now costs $5 for an MRT ride from Woodlands to Bukit Chagar via KTM, and RM5 (S$1.60) for a one-way trip to Woodlands from Bukit Chagar.

Dr Wee said: "This is a dedicated railway system from Bukit Chagar so for the distance of 4km, it is using the (Malaysian) LRT system."

The initial plan was for the cross-border link to use the same trains and rail systems as the TEL, for economies of scale.

As a result of the change, the RTS Link will not use the existing Mandai Depot in Singapore - run by TEL operator SMRT - for heavy maintenance of trains.

Instead, a new depot will be constructed in Wadi Hana, Johor Baru.

Said Dr Wee: "We need a maintenance depot, we need to have a place we can do servicing and maintenance, that's why we choose Malaysia."

"It will also create 1,000 jobs for the locals. The land acquisition process will continue with the help of the state government and the depot will be jointly owned by Singapore and Malaysia."

The RTS Link project was suspended from April 1 last year, at Malaysia's request, to allow some time for the country to review the project.

Yesterday's ceremony was witnessed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Muhyiddin Yassin, as Singapore's Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung and Dr Wee marked the resumption of the project.

Singapore will be bearing 61 per cent of the RM10 billion project cost, Dr Wee said.

Reviving air travel, preserving Singapore's hub status top priorities for new Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung
Hub status critical for jobs and economic competitiveness, says new transport minister
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2020

The top and immediate priority of the Ministry of Transport (MOT) is to revive air travel and maintain Singapore's hub status, said its new minister, Mr Ong Ye Kung, yesterday.

This requires a multi-ministry effort, as it involves negotiating reciprocal green lane arrangements with countries that have reduced their COVID-19 transmission rates, he told reporters at a ceremony to mark the resumption of work on the Johor Baru-Singapore rail link.

In such agreements, safeguards like pre-departure swab tests are used in lieu of lengthy quarantines.

Such a move will help breathe life into an air travel market "decimated" by the coronavirus, he added. And it is a crucial endeavour because Singapore's two hubs, its seaport and Changi Airport, are akin to "vital organs to the Singapore economic body".

Like a body's two lungs, they "oxygenate and vitalise various parts of the body and... add vitality and competitiveness to all sectors of Singapore", he said.

This is why the country's hub status is inextricably tied to jobs and its economic competitiveness, he added.

Mr Ong further pointed out that investors have two key considerations on whether to set up shop in Singapore. One is whether their products and components can move through Singapore easily, and the other is the ease with which employees and clients can meet in Singapore or travel from here.

"Singapore as a hub enables us to do that, and that is why Singapore remains competitive," said Mr Ong.

He was the Minister for Education before last week's Cabinet reshuffle.

In announcing his new Cabinet, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said the MOT's emphasis in the next few years will shift from improving public transport reliability to envisioning and realising Singapore's post-COVID-19 connectivity by land, sea and air.

PM Lee said he had picked Mr Ong to helm the ministry, given his "Cabinet experience and political nous", as part of the job requires engagement with Malaysia and Indonesia on major bilateral projects such as the High-Speed Rail and the Rapid Transit System Link between Johor Baru and Woodlands, as well as sensitive airspace and maritime issues.

Yesterday, Mr Ong noted that while the pandemic has affected both sea and airport operations, the impact on the sea port has not been too drastic and he expects PSA Corp to "still do quite well" this year.

But the impact on the aviation sector has been far greater.

It is in the business of moving people and has consequently been hit hard by the virus.

"So in the coming weeks, coming months, the top priority is what steps can we take to revive our aviation hub," he said, noting that his ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and various ministries are working together to negotiate reciprocal green lanes.

Singapore has made such agreements with China and Malaysia so far, which allow travellers on essential business and official purposes to replace the customary 14-day self-quarantine with measures such as pre-departure swab tests and the submission of detailed itineraries.

"Going forward, let's hope (we) can negotiate more reciprocal green lanes," said Mr Ong.

He stressed that it is crucial not to take Singapore's status as an aviation hub for granted, as other countries will be vying for the same business when the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic starts showing signs of being brought under control.

When that happens, Singapore once again "needs to be able to fight back, secure and revive its aviation sector while being able to keep (the) transmission level low and maintaining the health of Singaporeans", he said.

"This is a key issue that we will have to grapple with in the coming weeks and months."

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