THE first trains for the planned high-speed rail (HSR) linking Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are expected to be up and running by around 2026, with travellers able to make the 350km journey in just 90 minutes.
This was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak in Putrajaya on Tuesday, shortly after they witnessed the signing of a memorandum to underscore their countries' commitment to this mega-project at the highest levels.
The document, which paves the way for detailed negotiations and a call for international tenders, was inked by Singapore's Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and Malaysia's Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan.
Singapore and Malaysia are now working towards signing a legally binding bilateral agreement on the HSR later in the year.
Speaking at a news conference alongside Mr Najib, Mr Lee said it was important for both countries to get the HSR done properly, as it would change the way people look at Singapore and Malaysia.
"The HSR will physically link our two capitals and draw our peoples and economies closer. People will think of Singapore-KL in the same way as they think of London-Paris, Taipei-Kaohsiung and Tokyo-Osaka," he said.
More details about the project emerged on Tuesday. The bulk of the line, 335km of it, will be in Malaysia, with the remaining 15km in Singapore. There will be two tracks, one in each direction.
Singapore is involved with Malaysia only in the express non-stop service from Jurong East in Singapore to the upcoming Bandar Malaysia development in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia, however, will also operate a separate domestic service from KL and make stops at six stations along the way. These will be at Putrajaya, Seremban, Ayer Keroh, Muar, Batu Pahat and Iskandar Puteri.
The customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) facilities will be co-located at three venues - Jurong East, Iskandar Puteri and Kuala Lumpur - so that international-bound travellers need only undergo clearance at their point of departure.
The two leaders did not disclose the estimated cost of the HSR, but at a separate function on Tuesday, Malaysia's Second Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani revealed that the rail link would cost in the region of RM50 billion to RM60 billion (S$16.8 billion to S$20.2 billion).
When asked about the 10-year roadmap to complete the HSR, Mr Lee described that timeframe as "very ambitious"; Mr Najib said it would be "very tight" but doable.
Mr Lee noted that Singapore's MRT lines, which are not as complex as the cross-border HSR project, typically take between 12 and 15 years from inception to service.
He stressed that Singapore and Malaysia would work closely together to navigate the many hurdles and challenges, both internal and external, over the next decade.
"The project itself has got many complexities and they all have to be put together like a very complicated jigsaw puzzle. We must make sure that we can all do things right in order to get the project done in the most expeditious time," he said.
What both leaders were in complete agreement on was the fact that the HSR would give a significant boost to their two economies come 2026, when the link is operational.
Said Mr Lee: "If you look at Taipei and Kaohsiung (in Taiwan), and Shanghai and Nanjing (in China), when two cities are connected together, both cities benefit. There is more competition, but there is more business to be done."
Mr Najib noted that nearly 30,000 jobs would be created as a result of the project, and that the value of the land for the towns along the link will also see a "tremendous increase".
"This is the future of Malaysia and Singapore. If you can visualise what it would be like in 2026, you will see a very exciting future, and that future will be a reality once this project is operational."
Mr Lee added: "This is a very positive project. It's a major undertaking and will cost quite a lot for both sides. We have to get it right, and when we do, it will be a lasting and strategic contribution."
Before the signing ceremony, the two leaders had a private meeting and lunch at Seri Perdana, Mr Najib's official residence. They are due to meet again later this year at their annual retreat, which will be held in Malaysia.