Race to the finish: bidding for the Singapore-KL High Speed Rail

January 2015 saw JR East (East Japan Railway Company), Japan Overseas Rolling Stock Association (JORSA) and Japan Railway Technical Service (JARTS) hosting a Shinkansen exhibition at the Marina Bay Sands and later in July 2016, at Pavilion KL in Kuala Lumpur:

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At Marina Bay Sands
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At Marina Bay Sands
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At Marina Bay Sands
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At Marina Bay Sands
At Pavilion KL. Photo courtesy of RailTravel Station

At the same time however, competition from Japan’s East Asian neighbours are also fast closing in with their own fair share of exhibits and moves to gain an edge to be chosen for the Singapore-KL High Speed Rail (HSR) system:

In 2015, South Korea displayed its clear desire to be chosen for the project with the exhibition of its own high speed rail technology and KTX network. Photo courtesy of KTX via Korea Tourism Organisation.
The China High-Speed Railway Experience Cube was launched on 17 January 2017 at KL Sentral in China’s bid for the HSR project. Video still courtesy of Channel NewsAsia.

Even then, one should also not rule out other key players in the high speed rail market for the HSR bid such as France’s TGV (which is not unknown for setting world speed records, such as the 574.8 km/h speed record in 2007) and Germany’s ICE (which is among those that China owes its current position in the HSR industry to). So who would emerge as the victor of this race? Let’s find out.


The HSR proposal was first raised in the late 1990s but was eventually shelved due to high costs. Subsequently, YTL Corporation, the operator of the Express Rail Link between Kuala Lumpur and its international airport KLIA, revived the proposal in 2006 with proposed speeds of 250 km/h and an expected travel time of 99 minutes but this was again shot down in 2008 for the expected cost of RM 8 billion.

In 2010, the proposal was raised again as a high-impact project for the Economic Transformation Programme Roadmap but the project only took off at a meeting between the Prime Ministers in February 2013. A committee was tasked with looking into ‘the details and modalities’ of the project, which was to be completed by end 2014.

At the Leaders’ Retreat on 7 April 2014, the LTA raised three possible locations for the Singapore terminus: Jurong East, Tuas and the city. Jurong East was subsequently chosen as the terminus on 6 February 2015.

Already during this timeframe, Japan, South Korea and China had expressed keen interest with the project and made numerous pitches to sell their technology. France also displayed interest to join the fray during a state visit by Singapore to France to mark the 50th anniversary of Franco-Singapore relations.

Eventually, on 19 July 2016, the Transport Minister of Singapore Khaw Boon Wan and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department of Malaysia Abdul Rahman Dahlan signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Putrajaya. The next month, tenders for advance engineering studies were open. Another bilateral agreement was signed on 13 December 2016. Under the agreement, it was agreeed that there would be a domestic all-stop service between Iskandar Puteri in Johor and Kuala Lumpur, a direct international service between Kuala Lumpur and Jurong East in Singapore and a shuttle service between Iskandar Puteri and Jurong East. The line will be 350 km long and will be operated by OpCo Domestic for the all-stop services within Malaysia while OpCo International operates the services between Singapore and Malaysia. The stations and infrastructure would be managed by the authorities of the countries’ respective stations: MyHSR Corp on the Malaysia side and the LTA on the Singapore side. Customs, Immigration & Quarantine (CIQ) facilities will be co-located at three locations – Kuala Lumpur, Iskandar Puteri and Singapore and for international services, passengers only need to pass through the CIQ clearance at the station of departure. The 350km, eight-station line will link both countries via a bridge over the Strait of Johor that is 25m above water level.

The players

So far, the following countries have expressed interest in the Singapore-KL HSR project:


A line up of JR East-operated Shinkansen EMUs, 2012. From left: an E5 series, a 200 series (retired 2013), an E4 series, an E2 series, an E3 series, an type E928 ‘East-i’ track diagnosis EMU, an E1 series (retired 2012). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Rsa.

The Shinkansen is relatively known for introducing dedicated high-seed railways to the world in 1964 and an impressive safety record of zero passenger fatalities from derailments or collisions. Little would one know however was that the Shinkansen concept started out rather differently in 1940 as a proposed standard gauge passenger and freight rail line between Tokyo and Shimonoseki using high speed locomotives that could travel up to 200 km/h. In fact, the country’s Railway Ministry even planned for the rail line to extend to Beijing via Korea and even Singapore and connect to the Trans-Siberian Railway. The World War II burden however killed the plans off even though some tunnels for the line were indeed built.

In the post-war recovery of the 1950s, rail traffic on the Tokaido Main Line between Tokyo and Osaka reached its peak, making the government decide to revisit the Shinkansen plan. The development of the Odakyu 3000 series Romancecar in 1957 that set the world speed record of 145 km/h for a narrow-gauge train further added confidence to railway engineers. The green light was eventually given to build the high speed rail line between Tokyo and Osaka in 1958 and construction of the Tokaido Shinkansen started in 1959. After 5 years of construction, the line finally opened in 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics that year. Since then, the Shinkansen has rapidly expanded to cover more parts of Japan with the Sanyo Shinkansen opening from 1972 to 1975 to connect Okayama, Hiroshima and Hakata to Osaka and the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen in 1982. The budget however caused serious financial difficulties for JNR (Japanese National Railways) and the company was privatised and broken up in 1987.

Since then, the respective JR companies have sought to further improve the Shinkansen and the rolling stock. In 1992, JR Central introduced the new 300 series Shinkansen that cut travel times between Tokyo and Osaka from 2 hr 56 min to 2 hr 30 min while JR East introduced the ‘mini-Shinkansen’ concept for regauged conventional lines that had smaller loading gauges than Shinkansen lines while all three JR operators introduced experimental units throughout the 1990s to increase the speed of the Shinkansen. Newer faster trains like the 500 series, E2 series, N700 series and the E5 series have emerged as a result, with the E5 series being able to reach 320 km/h. Meanwhile, the Shinkansen system has continued to expand into Kyushu in 2004, Hokkaido in 2016 and Hokuriku in 2015. Shinkansen technology has also been successfully exported to Taiwan, China and Great Britain to name a few. Japan has also ventured into magnetic levitation (maglev) technology since the 1970s and have broken speed records with them such as the 603 km/h record in 2015. The Chuo Shinkansen between Tokyo and Nagoya which will use maglev technology is slated to open in 2027.

File:JR Central SCMaglev L0 Series Shinkansen 201408081006.jpg
The L0 series Shinkansen set the world speed record of 603 km/h for unconventional rail vehicles in 2015. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Hisagi.

Analysis of likelihood of winning:

Factors in favour: The Shinkansen is the best-fit bidder for the Singapore-KL HSR line for its impressive records, among which include punctuality and the safety record of zero fatalities from derailment or collisions since 1964. This is attributable to the cab-signalling system used on the Shinkansen: the Automatic Train Control (ATC) system, which sets the speed limits for the train to adhere to. The strive to improve punctuality led to the digitalisation of the ATC in February 2013, which allows for the train to be braked less times and more smoothly, allowing shorter departure intervals and increased frequencies. Another secret to the safety record is the maintenance regime. Track-wise, Doctor Yellow (for JR Central and JR West)/East-i (for JR East) units are used to provide track diagnosis results using special meauring instruments onboard the train. Subsequently the track maintenance technical centre would calculate the amount of correction work required. The track liner would then be dispatched during maintenance work to correct the track and a similar system would confirm that the correction was done correctly.

File:Shinkansen and Himeji Station M9 24.jpg
The Doctor Yellow train is crucial in the Shinkansen maintenance regime but is also a highly revered train type among Japanese train enthusiasts, with a belief that sighting the yellow train gives one good luck! Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Corpse Reviver.

Other benefits touted by the Japanese for the Shinkansen include the body structure and duckbill-shaped front design to reduce tunnel boom, bogie design to reduce vibrations, distributed traction system used on electric multiple units (EMUs) and the transit-oriented development model as exemplified by the case studies of Toyama and Fukui which lie along the corridor of the Hokuriku Shinkansen.

Another factor that can give Japan an edge is its other ventures into other parts of Southeast Asia in improving their railways and mass transit systems. This is highlighted by the exports of reliable second-hand commuter trains to Jakarta, Indonesia from Tokyo, the supplying of J-Trec’s Sustina MRT trains for Bangkok’s Purple Line and the new Nippon Sharyo-built MRT trains for Jarkata. Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which built all the Shinkansen train types except the 800 series, is also a key client of LTA for Singapore’s MRT trains.

Factors against: The Achilles’ heel behind the Shinkansen lies in the cost of the system. This is especially so with Japan unwilling to make as many financial concessions as China, which claims to build a HSR system more quickly at half the cost. The cost factor, no matter the long term benefits, could be a problem for Japan’s bid.

Probability: 6/10


A CRH2C EMU, which is based off Japan’s E2 series Shinkansen and an CRH3C EMU, which is based off Germany’s ICE3, at Tianjin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user 颐园新居.

Despite the massive CRH (China Railway High-speed) network that has been built and the know-how China has been aggressively marketed, China was a newcomer even in 2007. The development of high-speed railways in China started in the early 1990s when the Railway Ministry submitted a proposal to build a high-speed railway between Beijing and Shanghai to the National People’s Congress. Meanwhile, ‘Speed Up’ campaigns were conducted from the late 1990s to the early 2000s which saw numerous railway lines being upgraded. One notable example was the Guangshen (Guangzhou-Shenzhen) Railway which offered sub-high speed services with DF-class diesel locomotives at 160 km/h before using the X-2000 tilting EMUs from Sweden at 200 km/h.

The government also tested new rail technologies on prototypes such as the China Railways (CR) DJJ1 ‘Blue Arrow’ and the CR DJJ2 ‘China Star’. Shanghai also purchased a German Transrapid maglev system for a direct rail link between Pudong and Shanghai Pudong International Airport. While the maglev system is now the fastest in revenue speed in the world, German refusals to share the technology and concerns of electromagnetic radiation led to the stalling of the possibility of maglev for actual HSR use. The domestic high speed trains were also commercially unreliable despite setting national speed records, leading to Beijing seeking for foreign technology transfer from other countries. As a result, the first-generation CRH trains were based off high speed rail rolling stock from other countries, such as the Bombardier Regina and Zefiro of Canada, the Shinkansen of Japan, the ICE of Germany and the Pendolino of Italy. China also built many new dedicated high-speed lines for the CRH trains, such as the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Railway in 2008 and Wuhan–Guangzhou High-Speed Railway in 2009. By 2011, China had the world’s longest high-speed rail network with about 8,358 km of routes capable for at least 200 km/h running in service including 2,197 km of rail lines with top speeds of 350 km/h. China has also started to manufacture its CRH trains domestically, the first example being the CRH380A:

A CRH380A DT (driving trailer) car at the Shanghai Expo 2010. The CRH380A was fully built by CSR Qingdao Sifang, making it the first made-in-China CRH train type. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Alancrh.

Progress on the CRH was slowed down following the Wenzhou train collision, which was due to a critical signalling fault and the purge of the Railway Minister under allegations of corruption. However, since 2013, the CRH has managed to pick up the speed of progress and is now able to gain a footing to compete with rivals in other countries such as Indonesia, Mexico and even the United States.

Analysis of likelihood of winning:

Factors in favour: While China is notorious among the general public for the poor quality of goods, China does stand a good chance for the HSR bid. This can be attributed to the relative cost-efficiency (see above factor against for Japan). Also, the Chinese government has had solid ties with both countries across the Causeway. In Malaysia, ties with China have warmed greatly with Chinese investors promising investments along the HSR corridor and China’s efforts to bail Prime Minister Najib out of the 1MDB scandal. China also has a solid portfolio to speak of in Malaysia’s rail industry: The building of new EMUs for KTM’s Electric Train Service (ETS), the supplying of new LRT trains for KL’s Ampang Line, the building and financing of the East Coast Rail Line project in Malaysia, etc. In Singapore, China has close diplomatic ties with Singapore since 1990 and both have invested greatly in each other.

ETS 5.jpg
The KTM Class 93 for the ETS services were built by CSR (now CRRC) Zhuzhou in Zhuzhou, China. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Sileong.

Factors against: Even with China’s bid being the favoured one by Putrajaya, China still faces key obstacles that could well hinder it from winning the tenders. One of them is the South China Sea disputes, where both Malaysia and China have conflicting interests on the Spratly Islands:

Disputed and claimed territories in the South China Sea. Map courtesy of US State Department.

With sovereignty being a key priority among Asian countries, Malaysia would not easily back down and could well use the HSR project as a bargaining chip on the South China Sea claims. A rigid stance by China (which is the case) could cost it the contracts altogether.

Things are also not having an easy turn for Singapore either. Trust on China’s rolling stock products have come into serious question in Singapore especially when it was revealed by FactWire of Hong Kong in July 2016 that SMRT was secretly shipping defective Kawasaki-CSR Sifang C151As (the forth-generation MRT trains for the North South East West Lines) back to Qingdao, China. Sino-Singapore relations have also taken a sour turn recently with Chinese accusations that Singapore is aligning its stance with the United States on the South China Sea disputes and more recently, the seizure of SAF’s Terrex vehicles used in Exercise Starlight in Taiwan.

The recall of the 35 China-made MRT trains have applied salt on the wounds of people’s trust of China-made trains. Video still courtesy of FactWire.

The Terrex withhold could however be a bargaining chip exploited by both sides. Singapore could threaten to have Chinese contractors disqualified if the Terrexes are not returned to Singapore from Hong Kong while China could threaten otherwise. Whether this actually happens is however only for time to tell.

Probability: 6.9/10

Update: The Terrex vehicles have been returned to Singapore as of Jan 30. Hence, the earlier write-up for the significance of the withholding of the Terrex vehicles in China’s bid can be ignored.


Gare du Nord threesome.jpg
From background to foreground: British Rail Class 373 set for Eurostar services between London, Paris and Brussels, two Thalys PBKA sets for Thalys services between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne and a TGV-PSE set for regular TGV services. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Yuichi Shiraishi.

The Train Grande Vitesse, or TGV, started its life out as the Turbotrain Grande Vitesse during the early 1970s when a gas-turbine powered TGV-001 prototype was built in 1972 and was tested a prototype of France’s future high-speed railways. However, the oil crisis of 1973 forced SNCF (France’s national railway operator) to switch to electric traction. The TGV-001 was however not a wasted prototype: it also served as a testbed for high-speed brakes, aerodynamics and signalling as well as the articulated cars the TGV came to be renown for. Later, an electric-powered prototype was tested in 1974 and was complete with innovative body mounting of motors, pantographs, suspension and braking. The first LGV (purpose-built high speed lines for TGV trains) project, the LGV Sud-Est (between Paris and Lyon), was given the green light in 1976 and the line was completed in 1981. The LGV Sud-Est had a revenue speed of 260 km/h, overtaking the Shinkansen. However, it also had the same initial ticket price as trains on the parallel conventional line. To counter popular belief that it was for the more ‘well-off’ business travellers, a massive campaign was spread across France to publicise the accessibility of the TGV.

Subsequently in 1989 to 1990, the LGV Atlantique from Paris to Western France was completed and opened. Also in 1990, modified TGV Atlantique set 325 set a world speed record of 515.3 km/h and remained as so until the TGV broke its own record again with project V150 in 2007.

Since the 1990s the French have not looked back and have expanded the LGV network into a radial system with the different corners of France being connected to Paris. To accommodate the expanding network SNCF acquired the TGV Reseau and the double-deck TGV Duplex. Meanwhile, 1994 saw the start of Eurostar services to London from Paris via the Channel Tunnel and Thalys services commenced in 1996. In addition, TGV services also extend well beyond France into Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland while Alstom has been able to export the TGV to Spain, South Korea and Morocco.

In 2007, the LGV Est connecting Paris to Strasbourg and other countries like Germany was completed. Prior to its opening, the French tested the limits of the TGV technology again with the new POS powerheads and Duplex bilevel cars connected together to form a new trainset with AGV bogies. In 2007, the world speed record of 574.8 km/h for conventional rail vehicles was set by the test trainset.

TGV V150, which set the record 574.8 km/h. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Alain Stoll.

In addition, Alstom, which builds most of the TGV rolling stock, also developed the Automotrice Grande Vitesse (AGV), which was developed independently from SNCF. Features of the train included distributed traction system instead of the French concentrated traction system, articulated bogies and permanent magnet synchronous motors to name a few.

Alstom AGV Cerhenice img 0365.jpg
The AGV prototype on a test track in the Czech Republic. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Miroslav.broz

Analysis of likelihood of winning:

Factors in favour: Like Japan, France also has a good safety record, with only three derailments at speeds over 270 km/h. This is attributable to aspects such as the articulated bogie, which reduces chances of the train overturning. Also, major accidents for the TGV occur when TGV trains run on lignes classiques (conventional lines), which expose TGV trains to the same dangers as conventional trains. This danger is unlikely for Malaysia and Singapore’s case as the trains are to be of a different gauge (1435 mm standard gauge) from KTM railways (1000 mm metre gauge), meaning that high speed trains in Malaysia would run on a completely separate network. Also, in contrast to Japan or China, France has the experience of operating cross-border high-speed rail services as exemplified by the Eurostar or Thalys, which gives France an edge in supervising cross-border HSR operations between Singapore and Malaysia.

File:TGV POS. 4404 Hauptbahnhof Frankfurt 09052009.JPG
A TGV POS set at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The train on the right is an ICE train operated by Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail operator. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Urmelbeauftragter.

Another factor that could give France an edge is Alstom’s record in Singapore, where it was responsible for the signalling and rolling stock for the North East and Circle Lines in the MRT network. The relatively good performance of the two lines would give Alstom great credibility for the LTA. In addition, France, while not on the news as frequently as China or Japan on the HSR project, could well win precisely through this strategy of low publicity and French neutrality in the disputes in East Asian waters.

Factors against: The French has very little involvement, if not none, in Malaysian rail industry in contrast to other players like China. Also, much of the limelight on the bid is stolen by the East Asian players, which could squeeze European players out of the scene.

Probability: 6.5/10

South Korea

KTX-Sancheon 120000 Series.jpg
Hallayu is not just K-pop, spicy chicken wings or Gangnam Style. It also includes fast trains! Photo courtesy of Minseong Kim.

Like China, South Korea is also a newcomer that established its place in the high speed rail market. With increasing traffic along the Gyeongbu corridor between Seoul and Busan, the South Korean government planned for a new HSR line to relieve congestion during the 1980s to 1990s. Construction started in 1992 while TGV technology with technology transfer was chosen later in 1994. However, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 slowed down progress of the KTX. The KTX finally opened in 2004.

Since then, South Korea has also sought to further expand the KTX network, with new lines connecting Busan, Iksan, Gwangju and Yeocheon to Seoul opening stage by stage. South Korea also developed its own domestic technology from the TGV with the development of the HSR-350x, the precursor to the KTX-II, which was of ingenious South Korean ‘Hanvit’ technology. South Korea has also been using HSR bids with Hallayu (Korean wave) as a means to further assert its soft power across the world.

Analysis of likelihood of winning:

Factors in favour: South Korea has been stepping out to gain a breakthrough with ASEAN with a slow-down of China’s economic growth. Also, the public sector has secured most of the technology through state-led R&D, making it easier for South Korea to transfer technology to Malaysia according to Kang Ho-in, South Korea’s Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister. According to the European Railway Agency, South Korea also ranked top in high-speed railway safety, with the accident rate per 1 million kilometers the lowest at 0.073 in 2014, followed by Italy at 0.09, the Netherlands at 0.119 and Germany at 0.166.

Factors against: Despite the relatively cleaner record of South Korea as compared to China, Hyundai Rotem of South Korea has also come under doubt on their products. Some of them include the removal of a third of entire Regional Rail Fleet in Philadelphia due to structural defects by trains manufactured by Hyundai Rotem and the recall of Ukrainian trains built by Hyundai Rotem due to cracks. Also, South Korea has a smaller presence in Malaysia’s rail industry, with the main presence of Hyundai Rotem in Malaysia being the building of the first-generation ETS trains for the KTM.

Probability: 6/10

Notes: Germany’s Siemens AG (the one behind the ICE) and Spain’s CAF (the one behind Spain’s Talgo) have also expressed keen interest on the project but this will not be discussed as this is only evident in this link. Also, the likelihood of Germany or Spain winning the contracts is similar to the case faced by France.

So how?

From general news reports on the Singapore-KL HSR, Japan and China seem to be the key favourites, with China being favoured by the Malaysian side and Japan or Europe by the Singapore side. While we can be sure that Japan is the optimal choice for the HSR in terms of quality and China the economic choice, it is up to time to determine the outcome of the deal.


Author: sbs9834c

A transport enthusiast and SRJC alumnus who has served an internship with the LTA and is awaiting for university matriculation into SUTD.

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