Singapore, Malaysia to build high-speed rail link

Singapore and Malaysia announced plans Tuesday to build a high-speed rail link, fuelling hopes that Southeast Asia could one day enjoy a rapid European-style train system connected to China.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak hailed the project, which would cut travel time between the city-state and Kuala Lumpur to 90 minutes. The target year for completion is 2020.

"This is a strategic development in bilateral relations that will dramatically improve the connectivity between Malaysia and Singapore," the leaders said in a joint statement issued after meeting in Singapore.

"It will facilitate seamless travel between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, enhance business linkages and bring the peoples of Malaysia and Singapore closer together."

The existing rail link between the two countries dates back to the period of British colonial rule over both, with stops at several Malaysian towns. The current Singapore-Kuala Lumpur service takes more than seven hours.

No cost estimate was given for the construction of the new rail link.

"(We) have some very preliminary figures but I am not inclined to mention those figures because it will tend to stick in people's minds," Najib said at a joint news conference with Lee.

Lee quipped that Singaporeans would be able to have lunch with friends in Kuala Lumpur, which is about 350 kilometers (220 miles) away, and get back within the day.

"It's a strategic project for the two countries. It will change the way we see each other," said Lee, likening it to the heavily used London-Paris connection.

The 90-minute travel time for the new train compares with four hours by car, including clearing immigration, and five hours by bus.

And while a flight takes less than an hour that does not take into account the time taken to check in, pass immigration and pick up luggage.

Both countries belong to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which hopes to one day link most member states by rail and extend the connection to China and possibly India.

ASEAN is contemplating a link that will run from Singapore to Kunming in southwestern China, thereby tapping into the country's vast high-speed network -- the world's longest at more than 9,300 kilometres and rapidly expanding.

To link up with China, ASEAN estimates that there are 4,069 kilometres of missing links that need to be built, or existing railways that need to be upgraded, in several countries.

"Beyond ASEAN, once these links are built, it will connect both the mainland ASEAN and ASEAN with its trading partners China and India," a fact sheet on the trading bloc's website said.

A Singapore-Malaysia high-speed railway was first mooted in the 1990s by Francis Yeoh, head of Malaysian infrastructure conglomerate YTL, which built an express train service from Kuala Lumpur's main airport to the city centre.

The idea was repeatedly shelved largely due to cost concerns. Malaysian media reports said in 2009 that the project's cost was estimated at $2.5 billion-$3.5 billion.

Hopes for the project were revived in 2010 after Najib became prime minister.

Chin Hoong Choor, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore specialising in transport, told AFP that there was "definite political will" to create a Singapore-Kunming rail link.

The new Singapore-Kuala Lumpur service will be one of the important links in the network "and possibly among the first to be constructed due to demand and availability of funds," he said.

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