Graphic: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute/The Star
In contrast to big ticket items such as the East Coast Railway Link and the Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail that have been called into question in recent months, the relatively low-profile Gemas-Johor Baru Electrified Double-Tracking Project (EDTP) is making steady progress and is scheduled for completion by October 2022.
The RM9.5bil EDTP involves replacing the current single rail line with a double track and laying electrical cabling along a 197km stretch of track. Beyond allowing more trains to ply the route, these upgrading works will enable diesel-powered trains to be replaced with faster electrical equivalents. The Gemas-Johor Baru EDTP is the final piece of the existing Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTMB) network to be upgraded and, once complete, there will be a continuous connection running from the southern tip of the peninsula all the way to Padang Besar on the Thai border.
Apart from track upgrading, 12 existing stations between Gemas and Johor Baru will be upgraded as part of the EDTP. In addition, a new railway station will be constructed in Senai, near Johor’s airport, to complement upcoming residential and industrial developments within the area.
The potential benefits
Upon completion, KTMB will operate the electric train service (ETS) with a maximum speed of 140km/h; the average travelling speed will be 100km/h. Consequently, travelling time between KL and JB will be shortened from the current seven hours to four hours. The ETS will provide an attractive alternative to express buses, which currently require four-and-a-half hours to travel between the two cities even without traffic congestion.
The Gemas-JB EDTP is touted as a catalyst that will spur economic development in the central part of Johor. Once operational, residents living in towns along the route will be able to commute daily to JB for work. This transport option would be increasingly attractive if KTMB decides to provide hourly or half-hourly commuter services, similar to the KTMB Komuter services on offer in the Klang Valley and between northern Perak and Perlis. Drawing reference from completed EDTP projects, the KTMB Northern Commuter has a daily ridership of 16,000.
With the upgrades, the line’s freight capacity would also expand considerably. An electrified and double-tracked railway network between Gemas and JB would also facilitate large-scale cargo shipments between Malaysia’s two largest ports, Port Klang near Kuala Lumpur and Tanjung Pelepas west of JB.
Industries that produce goods on a voluminous scale stand to benefit particularly from the increased capacity. Given that land prices in greater JB are relatively high, these industries may be encouraged to relocate to towns along the railroad, such as Segamat, Kluang and Kulai.
Improved rail capacity along this route could also revitalise the stalled Segamat Inland Port (SIP). Roughly equidistant between Port Klang and the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, SIP ceased operations in 2006, partly due to freight capacity constraints arising from the single-track network. The federal government announced in 2015 plans to rejuvenate the dry port. The wider Segamat district was incorporated into the East Coast Economic Region in 2018, and if successfully rejuvenated, SIP could serve as a transhipment hub for the East Coast and southern Pahang.
Increased passenger numbers could also open up greenfield sectors such as agritourism. Zenxin Organic farm located in Kluang district, for instance, claims to be the largest organic farm in Malaysia. Beyond catering to domestic tourists, travellers from Singapore represent a larger market if successfully tapped.
Challenges the project faces
While the EDTP offers a number of advantages, there are a number of challenges. Road-based transport presently remains the option of choice for most Malaysians, as the country has a well-developed highway network such as the North-South and East Coast Expressways, and has promoted car ownership for decades. Public transport remains under-developed in Malaysia. Without effective local bus services for last-mile connectivity, train stations are handicapped in their ability to function as the arterial “hub” for surrounding areas under a hub-and-spoke model.
The Johor state government has attempted to address last-mile connectivity through the provision of free bus services (Bas Muakafat Johor) where transport hubs are connected with the surrounding housing estates. However, the frequency and coverage of such services remain relatively sparse. To fully exploit the benefits of the Gemas-JB EDTP, local bus services need to be well integrated with rail transport.
Furthermore, the KL to JB route is presently dominated by point-to-point express bus services. With electric train service fares between KL and JB likely to cost twice as much as existing bus options, KTMB may need to offer discounted fares during non-peak hours to increase ridership.
In addition, the Malaysian rail network has certain structural difficulties. Using the completed Ipoh-Padang Besar EDTP as a reference, the Gemas-JB EDTP may be less successful in enabling higher freight volumes compared with passenger numbers. Ongoing track rehabilitation and upgrading linked to the Klang Valley Electrified Double Track (KVDT) project has severely restricted freight capacity to Port Klang. Rail segments in the Klang Valley undergoing rehabilitation are capped with a speed limit, and only one track is operational despite the double tracking. The KVDT is only expected to be completed in 2026, meaning limited throughput until then.
In other words, unless these deeper issues are resolved, the Gemas-JB project may increase ridership and generate more revenue for the operator but be unable to generate the broader expected economic benefits.
FRANCIS E. HUTCHINSON & KEVIN ZHANG
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute
Note: Hutchinson is a senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at ISEAS (Institute of South-East Asian Studies)-Yusof Ishak Institute, and Zhang is a research associate in the same programme.