January 18, 2024
KUALA LUMPUR – IT HAS been more than three years since the groundbreaking of the Rapid Transit Link (RTS) between Johor Baru and Singapore.
So far, 65% of the job has been completed and the project is on schedule to be completed by December 2026.
Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Corp is the project owner of the Malaysian portion of the RTS.
StarMetro talks to its chief executive officer Datuk Mohd Zarif Hashim about the progress of the project, which had its groundbreaking in November 2020, and its challenges.
Q: On Jan 11, the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore witnessed the completion of the connecting span for the RTS bridge across the Straits of Johor. Why is this significant and how has the progress been?
A: This was an important milestone in the project as this segment involved the completion of the connecting span, which connects the marine viaduct between Malaysia and Singapore.
This project is a vision of both governments to improve connectivity between both countries.
Both Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong graced the event which was held at the RTS Link marine viaduct site along the Straits of Johor.
I am thankful to our Prime Minister for his guidance to drive, implement and ensure the completion of this project for the people.
This is a monumental project and its completion would not be possible without the efforts from various ministries and parties both at the state and federal level.
Even Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar is keen on this project and has been a key driver to ensure everyone works together.
At MRT Corp, we view ourselves as not just an implementer but rather as facilitators for the government to achieve its national agenda through enhanced mobility.
We hope to ease border crossing and help to spur economic growth, especially supporting the new Special Economic Zone between Malaysia and Singapore.
We are now in the midpoint of this project with another three years to go.
Q: What are the challenges of this project?
A: Like any other major infrastructure project, the RTS has its own construction challenges.
We discovered that Jalan Tun Razak has a lot of utilities including pipes and cables underground. Among them are huge water pipes owned by Singapore and also Syarikat Air Johor (SAJ).
As such, we are unable to build a basement carpark under our Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) Complex.
As the train tracks in the city are still being operated by Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd, it is quite a challenge to build the RTS station with an active train track operational below because we have to be mindful of safety.
Anyway, we have done our own mapping of this part of the city and we can now share our data with an updated utilities map.
For future development projects in the city area, we will have the necessary data. That itself is valuable.
Another issue is with regards to traffic congestion. When we started construction, it was during the Covid-19 pandemic so the traffic situation was still manageable.
Now, there is traffic congestion as the project is adjacent to residential and commercial areas.
That is why we are in constant talks with the authorities such as the police, Public Works Department (JKR) and Johor Baru City Council (MBJB) on how to better manage traffic.
I wish to thank the people of Johor Baru who have been patient and supportive.
We are also in constant contact with our stakeholders such as the Immigration and other agencies not just in Malaysia but also in Singapore as they, too, will have their own clearance system at our CIQ building. We are mindful of their requirements in finalising the CIQ.
While challenging, the journey thus far has been both exciting and fulfilling as we are delivering a rail infrastructure that is revolutionising cross-border transportation.
Building a rail infrastructure is nothing new as we have already successfully delivered MRT 1 and MRT 2 in Kuala Lumpur.
A project like the RTS is more about managing the different expectations of numerous stakeholders both in and outside of the country to ensure the safest and shortest possible travel time.
We have been pushing many boundaries in this project and expect to continue hitting new heights as we progress into the operations phase, especially with regards to immigration clearance.
Q: How will immigration clearance be at the RTS? Singapore has already started doing facial recognition as part of their immigration clearance. Will that be included in the RTS?
A: We are trying not to have manual lanes and will initially have 100 autogates installed, with the option to expand to 150 in the future.
There will also be 100 autogates at the Woodlands North station.
At the moment the immigration of both countries are located on different floors in the CIQ building and passengers will need to clear the Malaysian immigration before proceeding to clear Singapore’s immigration.
However, we are in discussions with relevant authorities to establish a swift and seamless passport clearance system.
On the facial recognition features, our autogates can also have the biometric features and if the government decides to implement it, we can just enable it. The hardware that we will be installing will cater to this function when needed.
Q: What is the cost of the project now? Will there be any cost overruns due to the rising price of construction materials? Do you have sufficient buffers to cater to this?
A: The cost of the project is still around RM5bil. At the moment, we have passed the stage where we no longer need to order raw materials.
The price of steel has gone up by 36% in recent years but we have now seen some stability in terms of pricing.
We have already secured all the raw materials that we need. We are not exposed to any vulnerabilities at the moment and I am confident that we will be able to complete it within the budget without any cost overruns.
An aerial view of the massive construction site of the RTS Link in Johor Baru.
Each country also bears its own infrastructure cost for the project. The trains are shared by both countries with a company, RTS Operations (RTSO) Pte Ltd operating it.
The company is a joint venture between Prasarana Malaysia Bhd and SMRT Corporation Ltd of Singapore.
Prasarana holds 52% while SMRT holds 48% in RTSO.
RTSO will be responsible for the operating systems and the trains. We will have six trains.
Q: How many jobs has this project created and what is the spillover for the economy?
A: At the moment, we have about 2,000 people working during the construction period and about 500 during the operations of the trains.
We foresee a huge spillover effect for the economy. We are spending about RM5bil but in return we expect to generate at least RM25bil in socio-economic value over a period of time.
We are hopeful that our integrated property development in Bukit Chagar will be able to bring in RM3bil investment in knowledge economy.
If you factor in all the achievements of the players like Iskandar Regional Development Authority (Irda), JCorp and also investment into the new Special Economic Zone, we can definitely expect more than RM25bil in investments.
That is why we are proud to deliver such a catalyst.
Q: Once the trains start operating, what are some of the highlights of the project compared to the ones in the Klang Valley?
A: At the moment, the maximum design capacity of MRT Corp rail projects in the Klang Valley is about 400,000 passengers per day. It will take time to reach the design capacity. Presently, we are doing about 250,000 passengers per day. The design minimum separation time between two trains is about 1.5 minutes.
For the RTS, we are projecting about 10,000 passengers per hour per direction but I am sure we cannot get to that level straight away.
Our initial target is about 90,000 passengers per day in the first three years, and we expect to touch 130,000 to 150,000 passengers per day thereafter.
Based on the operating hours of 6am to midnight, we should be able to transport the targeted number of people based on its design capacity.
Q: What is the RTS fare? Will it be less than RM10 each way? Will the fares be subsidised?
A: At the moment, bus passengers pay about RM3 to RM4 to cross the Causeway and the ride is about one hour.
I have been stuck in a bus for almost three hours due to the jam.
With the RTS, we are looking for the journey completion within 15-30 minutes.
We have done our preliminary fare survey and expect to do another in 2025 so that we can come up with the right fare. But I am sure the fares will be affordable.
We will need to finalise the actual price before we launch the service. There could be discounts for Malaysian passport holders and discount cards for frequent travellers. We are trying not to subsidise the fares.
We feel that with a steady ridership of 130,000 per day and with the right pricing, we will be able to break even on the operations side.
The main objective is to sustain the operations of the RTS. This is a RM5bil capital expense spent by the government and we need to sustain the service.
We have to make sure the operating company can break even and have some reasonable profit and to ensure this, we need to set the appropriate price.
Anyway, in any rail project, it will take at least three years to break even.
Q: On the issue of connectivity within Johor Baru, should the RTS be extended?
A: On the need to extend connectivity beyond the RTS, the answer is yes but on whether the RTS needs to be extended beyond this corridor, the answer is no.
The RTS is a purpose-built cross-border rail transit system that has been meticulously designed and constructed, taking into consideration various critical factors such as border security, passport control, customs and excise duty, and health and quarantine protocols.
It has its own boundary areas as whoever enters this area has cleared the immigration from both Malaysia and Singapore. This is known as a bonded area and we cannot extend the RTS beyond this bonded area.
If the government wants to add further connectivity in Johor Baru, it should be a domestic project with a new network.
Agencies such as Irda are looking at different models including a Light Rapid Transit (LRT) or a Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT).
Q: MRT Corp adheres to a strict policy when dealing with non-performing contractors, including termination. What is your guiding principle in this project?
A: This is not just our policy but a government policy. The recent directive from the Chief Secretary tells all government agencies and public servants to take action against non-performing contractors because we need projects to be delivered to the people on time.
RTS is a national project. It has its own timeline. We have to be strict to achieve this timeline.
For those who do not perform, we do not terminate them but omit their scope of work.
So far, we have done more than RM1bil in omissions. This means we take over and do it ourselves.
However, during this period, a procurement process is initiated as a project of this size, we need to carry out a tender exercise.
Once a new contractor is appointed within six or eight months, our team will hand over the job to the new contractor and the project will continue without delays.
If we do not do this, there will be delays.
Anyway our MRT Corp teams have had the experience of handling such jobs for the past 10 years and this also allows us to minimise our dependency on external contractors.
When you are able to do things on your own and are less reliant on contractors, you will be able to take action on those who are not performing.
My message to my contractors and vendors has been simple – everyone has their own expectations but the common objective is to deliver the project on time.
They have to deliver and this is my No.1 principle.
The trust and mandate of the people cannot be sacrificed.
At the moment, we have eight major contractors with about 40 sub-contractors. We will need to appoint many more to handle landscaping works, drainage and information technology.
Q: One of the biggest complaints now is the traffic jams caused by the RTS project at all major roads leading into the city. How are you addressing this issue long-term?
A: Everyone is seriously looking into this issue including the state government, Irda and MBJB. We are looking at this from multiple dimensions.
We are looking at the whole road network in a holistic manner.
This means even traffic coming all the way from Pasir Gudang, Kempas and Iskandar Puteri.
We have identified certain areas that need road expansion projects.
We have also identified certain roads leading to the major artery (Jalan Skudai and Jalan Tebrau) that need to be closed.
We have to control the entry points into the major arteries.
We are discussing with the state government and stakeholders to ensure traffic on the arteries move smoothly.
For this to happen, we need to control the number of cars entering the major artery.
In future, we may release the cars in different blocks so that we have the right volume of cars in these arteries. We are mindful that traffic will become worse when RTS opens.
We are also looking at the BRT and LRT options for Johor in the near future.
We are looking at ways we can put up some park-and-ride facilities outside the city about 1km away. We can set up park-and-ride areas which can be served by LRT.
By the time RTS opens, the double-track Gemas-Johor Baru rail link will also be completed.
We need to find ways to connect people from Kuala Lumpur who travel via this rail network to the RTS.
At MRT Corp we are not just implementers, we are also thinkers and catalyst when it comes to rail projects.