MALAYSIA Rail Link Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Seri Darwis Abdul Razak is upbeat over the renewed East Coast Rail Link blueprint. He is determined to make it work to further modernise Malaysia’s public transportation system. He speaks to NSTP on the project’s latest developments.
QUESTION: You mentioned earlier this year that the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project would start in April. What has been carried out so far?
Answer: The progress percentage of the project is at 11.07 per cent currently, compared with 10.18 per cent in July. It generally covers all aspects of work from engineering, design, procurement and construction. Current work covers 17 locations and will be expanded to 27 locations before the year-end.
The works for Section B (Dungun to Mentakab) is targeted to peak by the third quarter next year once the land acquisition process is completed. By then, ongoing works along the 223km-stretch, which includes tunnelling works at 23 locations and 39km of viaducts at 65 locations, will progress smoothly.
The proposed 210km stretch from Kota Baru to Dungun’s alignment (Section A) will be gazetted for a three-month public inspection by the middle of this month.
Meanwhile, the proposed Section C, involving a 162km alignment from Mentakab to Port Klang, will be gazetted for three months at the end of next month.
Works on Section A and Section C will commence once the final railway scheme for both sections is approved by the Land Public Transport Agency (APAD) following the gazettement.
It is anticipated for construction in Section A to commence by May and Section C by July. Malaysia Rail Link (MRL) will also submit the Environmental Impact Assessment, Social Impact Assessment and Heritage Impact Assessment reports to the authorities, including APAD, concerning the changes in ECRL’s alignment for Section A and Section C. As of now, the ECRL project is on track for completion by the end of 2026.
Q: Now that the cost of the project has been substantially reduced, can you go into the details of the changes made to the blueprint?
A: About 66 per cent of the alignment in the initial ECRL project had changed with the resumption of the improved version in April, underpinned by a comprehensive value engineering exercise.
The major change comes in the form of the new alignment for Section C, which is from Mentakab to Port Klang, which would circumvent the necessity for a 17km Genting Tunnel from Bentong to Gombak.
It will traverse a southerly alignment going through Negri Sembilan and Putrajaya. Thus, we have connected our administrative capital and an additional state into the alignment.
The new alignment would avoid the costly construction of the Genting Tunnel, as well as encroachment into the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge in Selangor, which is being established as a Unesco heritage site. The new southern alignment will see two stations in Negri Sembilan — one in Kuala Klawang and the other in Nilai.
The new alignment will open up opportunities to leverage on the existing Express Rail Link (ERL) and the upcoming MRT2 SSP Line with an interchange at Putrajaya Sentral for connectivity to KLIA and downtown Kuala Lumpur. There are also major changes in terms of alignment between the section from Kota Baru to Dungun.
This involves shifting the alignment inland from the coastal areas to avoid poor soil conditions, and to generate cost savings from avoiding an expensive ground treatment process. However, the stretch from Dungun to Mentakab remains almost unchanged and works had resumed since May under the initial railway scheme approved by the Land Public Transport Commission (now APAD) in 2017.
Q: It was earlier touted as a game-changer of sorts, a huge economic catalyst. With current economic challenges, what is the projected outlook of this project?
A: The ECRL alignment that now includes the MRT2 and the ERL has improved in terms of connectivity for passengers. Connectivity to cargo origins and destination remains the same. Spur lines connecting Kuantan Port and Port Klang remain unchanged under the new ECRL blueprint.
The ECRL will be a catalyst for economic equality between the West Coast and East Coast of the peninsula, as it will stimulate new investment, spur commercial activities and boost tourism.
The project is expected to generate 23,000 jobs during its peak period of construction which will commence towards the end of 2020 where works on Sections A, B and C will be done concurrently. It is expected that some 70 per cent of the job opportunities will be for locals.
Local contractors’ participation has been increased from 30 to 40 per cent of the civil works with the new Supplementary Agreement between MRL and China Communications Construction Company Ltd (CCCC) inked on April 12.
MRL and CCCC have also signed a memorandum of understanding for management, operations and maintenance of the ECRL rail network on a 50:50 joint-venture basis.
This will reduce the operational risk and, at the same time, produce more Malaysian rail workers, as well as intensify rail technology transfer.
Q: Some have yet to comprehend the significance of the project.
A: The ECRL covers a 640km-long rail network. It is a national endeavour that connects the urban and rural areas while improving public transport connectivity in the latter, particularly in the East Coast.
It aims at improving the travelling time from Kota Baru to Putrajaya to four hours, at the speed of 160kph. The same goes for cargo facilities, in which ECRL will expedite heavy transportation in larger volumes and safer conditions. This will allow the opening up of bigger industries in the East Coast. The ease of travel will be a boon for the tourism sector.
And if there are floods, ECRL is the only transport mode which will allow people to move between the East Coast states.
In short, ECRL will shorten travel time and ease the transport of cargo. It will stimulate the economy, similar to the achievements made by the North-South Highway.
At the same time, MRL has renegotiated the implementation of the Industrial Skills Training Programme-ECRL with CCCC, which is the project’s main contractor.
A new training programme will be linked to the operations phase and benefit more than 5,000 trainees compared with the previous 3,600 trainees. The new (programme) structure will focus on training and increasing a skilled Malaysian workforce during the ECRL construction phase, while cooperation with higher learning institutions will produce more experts in rail, operations and maintenance. The ECRL will need a bigger workforce by 2027.
Q: Is the public aware of MRL’s efforts to prioritise local workforce for the project?
A: MRL, with the cooperation of CCCC, will organise a roadshow this year starting in Kuantan, Pahang, before moving on to the other states involved in Section A and C. We want to help those who are unemployed to get jobs and make the project a success.
Q: There are also concerns about the prices of tickets.
A: ERCL’s ticket price is regulated and monitored by APAD. Generally, it needs to be competitive. It is not cheaper than bus fares, but not as expensive as flight tickets. Otherwise, nobody will want to use the ECRL. It is a project for the people and the fares will not burden them.
Q: The new blueprint includes a new station in Nilai, which is said to be a crucial development.
A: A study was carried out to finalise the rail network between Mentakab and Port Klang. A new station was planned to connect the ECRL service with KTMB in the Klang Valley. Previously, the intersection appeared (to be suitably) located in the Bangi-Kajang area. However, a detailed study found the cost of land acquisition to be high due to the population density and brisk development.
An overall study later found that it was more suitable for the connecting station for ECRL and KTMB to be built through Nilai.
This is also to prevent encroachment on homes, buildings and other facilities to pave the way for the station and railroads.
Nilai is more expansive and has potential (in terms of spurring local development) due to the proximity of its industrial zone.