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TUAS West or Jurong East is likely to be one end of the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed rail that is due to roll out in 2020, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
The city centre will also be considered as an alternative terminal station for the $15.6 billion project that is tipped to cut land travel time between Singapore and Malaysia to just 90 minutes, though it is a less likely option.
"The city would be ideal, but it is very difficult to do," Mr Lee disclosed during a joint press conference with his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak at the end of an annual "retreat" meeting between the two leaders. "The expense would be very high. You have to tunnel a long way - and to find a sufficiently big plot (of land) in the city in order to build the railway station is not easy."
Tuas West makes sense because it is close to the Singapore-Malaysia border, and so is Jurong East which will become a major transportation, economic and financial zone for Singapore, Mr Lee said.
"Because it is (in) the Jurong Lake district and many things are happening at Jurong East," he said. "We will decide within the next year or so."
The idea of a Singapore-Kuala Lumpur rail was hatched between Mr Lee and Mr Najib at last year's retreat meeting. It is due to have seven stations, including a terminal station in Singapore and another in the Malaysian capital. There will be three stations in Johor Bahru and one each in Negri Sembilan and Malacca.
Property consultants The Business Times spoke to also point to Tuas West and Jurong East as likely locations to site the terminal. Of the three, Jurong East offers a compromise in terms of cost and connectivity. Building costs fall between the other two locations, and though not matching up to the city area, Jurong East is better connected to the rest of Singapore than Tuas West, they said.
It would make sense for the terminal to be located near the MRT station, said Christine Li, OrangeTee's head of research and consultancy. But finding the right location will be challenging considering the multiple developments in the area, she added.
Even so, siting the terminal in Jurong East will improve its position as a regional centre. Chesterton Singapore's managing director, Donald Han, said that the terminal would be a magnet for businesses and people to locate there. CBRE research head Desmond Sim reckoned that developments there would likely "synergise and benefit most".
Besides being close to the border, Tuas West, which is under developed with more available land, would offer the cheapest construction costs with minimal disruptions, said industry players. Ms Li said that Tuas West was considered possibly because of the port shift.
But the mostly industrial area is far from other parts of Singapore.
Nicholas Mak, SLP International's executive director said that this can be overcome by ensuring good access to public transport systems. But Jones Lang LaSalle's national director for research and consultancy, Ong Teck Hui, said that for travellers into Singapore, another 30 minutes to the city would be a "significant add-on to the 90-minute journey".
A terminal in the city would no doubt have the best connectivity for both travellers and locals. But land is prime with higher opportunity costs. Besides, construction work would cause more inconvenience. Mr Han of Chesterton Singapore pointed to the existing Tanjong Pagar railway station at Keppel Road and the KTM rail corridor as a more cost-effective way of locating the terminal in the city. Land acquisition costs would be reduced, said Mr Han.
While he said that Jurong East would be a likely candidate, having the terminal in Marina South, especially near the cruise centre, would create a "multi-nodal transport hub". Mr Han added it could push the expansion of the Central Business District into the Southern waterfront corridor.
Mr Najib said yesterday that the terminal station in Kuala Lumpur will be located in Bandar Malaysia, at the current Air Force base in Sungai Besi, which has been earmarked for redevelopment into a mixed use community and commercial district.
Mr Lee said that the high-speed rail is a "very major cooperation project which will preoccupy us for several years to come".
He added: "Officials have been working hard and there are many items here to discuss and settle: the design, the financing, the governance, the operations, the security and immigration requirements, the legal arrangements."
Despite the challenges, both Singapore and Malaysia leaders are sticking to the 2020 deadline for now. "That's quite an ambitious target," Mr Najib conceded. "(But) we wanted it to be an ambitious target so that we become very, very focused and the entire weight of both governments will be directed at this."
Mr Lee added: "I think 2020 is a good target to work for. It will be very challenging to achieve, but we don't think we should relax the constraint yet."
Meanwhile, Malaysia is keen to push two new initiatives raised at the latest retreat, the fifth since it kicked off in May 2007 in Langkawi by Mr Lee and former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. The two new initiatives are "a joint border control at a single checkpoint" and a long-term "Friendship Bridge" to provide a third road link between the two countries.
The Friendship Bridge is another variation which has been raised by Malaysian leaders since 2003. Mr Lee said that Singapore's current preoccupation is to improve the flow of traffic at its Custom and Immigration Quarantine (CIQ) checkpoint, but it recognises a need to widen the links across the Straits of Johor in the long term. This is already being looked into by the Singapore and Malaysian ministers studying cross-border road linkage.
Mr Lee is agreeable to co-location of the CIQ, especially for the new links such as the Rapid Transit System linking Johor and Singapore and the high-speed rail. But he said that it is harder to do for the existing links, because the CIQ is already built.
With additional reporting by Sheena Tan in S'pore