An artist’s impression of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) station in Wakaf Baru, Kelantan. The proposed ECRL is a perfect example of how better connectivity will help transform the generally less developed east coast region.

RECENTLY, one British TV series on railways around the world paid a glowing tribute to the success of Japan’s railways.

Here’s what the commentator had to say:

“Japan’s railways are the envy of the world: fast, clean, frequent and punctual, they are a daunting example to other nations of what can be achieved when government, business and science cooperate for the benefit of all.”

Rail industry experts would agree that Japan is one of the few nations that really believe that a railway network should be an integral part of the multi-modal transportation system.

Thanks to Japan, the rising interest in rail in other countries, including Malaysia, is unprecedented. Its vast rail network and systems — monorail, LRT, MRT, commuter, intercity and high-speed — is a model for all to emulate.

Japan’s bullet trains, or the Shinkansen, for example, marked 50 years of service in 2014 carrying 10 billion riders with a pristine record of safety and dependability.

The Shinkansen is not just a symbol of Japanese efficiency, but also a big factor in shaping the nation’s economy.

Malaysia is lately taking the cue from Japan, South Korea, India and even China and the United States in investing heavily in rail infrastructure.

We may be a late starter in this game, but it is better to be late than never.

The reasons are obvious: The economic arguments for building modern and efficient rail systems — both for freight and passengers — are overwhelmingly strong.

Studies have shown how rail systems greatly improve regional economies.

They will help narrow the disparity between developed cities and underdeveloped towns.

In this case, the proposed East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), which connects Kuala Lumpur to Kota Baru via the coast, is a perfect example of how better connectivity will help transform the generally less developed east coast region.

There are no reasons why most infrastructure spending is focused on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia alone.

Many also don’t realise the “leveller” effect. Faster connectivity via trains helps “level out” the advantage that only suppliers close to the Klang Valley can supply companies operating in and around Kuala Lumpur.

Some economists said the impact of this project on the economy will be multi-level.

For a start, construction and infrastructure companies will enjoy benefits, but much will depend on the speed of rolling out and implementing the parcels, said AmBank Group’s chief economist Anthony Dass.

At the same time, commercial activities will also benefit during the construction process.

In the longer term, once the entire project is completed, strong benefits will seep into services-related activities. Properties in major towns are likely to enjoy more, especially the port-connected towns, Dass said.

The reason being businesses related to logistics and trade will improve in the port-related towns.

Other areas would benefit from the movement of tourists. As for the smaller towns, they are more likely to enjoy from the spillover effects of this connectivity via movement of people commuting to work and new areas of business growth, especially in areas like small and medium businesses.

It is expected to save time and that would help in some degree in the cost of doing business. Also, if the time saved is justified, it allows people to commute from one town to another for work and other related activities, thus creating new townships and reducing over-urbanisation in a particular area.

At the same time, there will be challenges as well. One of them is the risk of cost overrun.

The other risk is the gestation period for the project to be fully utilised or operating above break-even point.

Thirdly, the challenge is how well we can tap into the regional trade movements, especially from neighbouring China, Vietnam and Thailand.

The ECRL project will be developed in two phases covering a total of 688.3km from Port Klang to Kota Baru.

There will be 11 eight-car train sets with a capacity of up to 600 passengers, running at an operating speed of 160 km per hour.

That means it takes just over four hours to reach Kota Baru from Kuala Lumpur as against more than seven hours by road.

By 2040, ECRL is projected to carry close to 53 million tonnes of cargo and eight million passengers a year.

Economist Dr Jomo K.S. has posed a question whether the ECRL will be an expensive “white elephant” paid for by Malaysians for many years to come.

He also questioned the way the project was awarded to a Chinese firm and whether Malaysia can afford the huge project.

In the first place, every big infrastructure project will draw criticism but most of them work out better than the critics contended early on.

Such big infrastructure projects are usually under-appreciated and over-criticised while in the planning and construction stage. Many people also find it hard to imagine fully the eventual benefits.

Economists should not look at just the pure returns of operating the ECRL.

There are many spin-offs that will be generated. For one, the value of the land especially near the stations will increase and industries will spring up in those areas.

This means more job and income opportunities for the east coast folk.

The writer feels in a digital world, the winner does not always take all.

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