The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) is a 665 km standard gauge double-track railway link infrastructure project that will carry both passengers and freight from the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia to its East Coast, and vice versa, by 2026. The rail link will run from Port Klang on the Malacca Straits to Kota Bharu in northeast Peninsular Malaysia, connecting the East Coast Economic Region (ECER) states of Pahang, Terengganu, and Kelantan as well as Peninsular Malaysia’s Central Region. The ECRL is a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the Government of China. In August 2017, construction on the ECRL project commenced in Kuantan.

Key players

The project is being developed by Malaysia Rail Link Sdn Bhd (MRL), which will operate it under a 50:50 joint venture (JV) with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). The project is being monitored and regulated by the Ministry of Transport’s Agensi Pengangkutan Awam Darat (APAD).

Project features

The ECRL will feature a total of 20 new stations, comprising 14 passenger stations, five passenger and freight stations, and one freight station.

Figure 1: Detailed map of the proposed ECRL

Source: Malaysia Rail Link

Table 1: Main sections of the ECRL

Source: Malaysia Rail Link

From Kota Bharu to Port Klang, the route will have roughly 40 tunnels, including the 2.8-km-long Kuantan Tunnel, the 1.1-km-long Paka Tunnel, and the 871-metre-long Dungun Tunnel. The longest tunnel of the line will extend around 7 km and will be constructed in the Jelebu–Semenyih area. Multiple 100-km-long viaducts will also be part of the project.

Figure 2 highlights the main stations of the ECRL.

Source: Global Mass Transit Research

Freight transport along the ECRL will account for 70 per cent of the total revenue generated by the rail network, while the remaining 30 per cent will be driven by passenger transport.

During construction, the project is estimated to produce employment opportunities worth RM17.6 billion. Small and medium-sized enterprises are expected to benefit from the project, along with an increase in demand for housing, supplies, and transportation throughout the districts traversed by the ECRL.

Project suspension and resumption 

In July 2018, MRL directed CCCC to suspend all works under the engineering, procurement, construction, and commissioning (EPCC) contract due to budgetary constraints. In April 2019, an agreement was finalised between the two agencies regarding the revised construction cost and the realignment of the southern route of the rail link. Work on the link was resumed thereafter.

Costs and funding

 In 2017, the original cost of the ECRL project was RM65.5 billion, which was reduced to RM44 billion after the project was resumed in 2019. The length of the route was also shortened to 640 km from 688 km. In the latest revision in 2021, the Government of Malaysia has agreed to increase the allocation for of the rail project to RM50 billion while increasing the proposed length back to 665 km.

The majority of the project is being funded by the Export-Import Bank of China. The Malaysian Small Medium Enterprise Development Bank Malaysia Bhd (SME Bank) will provide RM1 billion in funding to Malaysia-based contractors who are interested in participating in the project. Additionally, the Chinese Exim Bank is also providing a soft loan at the rate of 3.25 per cent for 85 per cent of the ECRL project. The remaining 15 per cent is being financed by Malaysia’s investment banks through a sukuk programme, an Islamic financial certificate similar to a bond.

 ECRL 3.0 alignment

In April 2021, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) reversed the realignment of the line when it  announced the ECRL 3.0 alignment, which was based on the original alignment (ECRL 1.0 alignment) and which allows for a bypass line from Serendah to Port Klang that permits the integration of Malayan Railways’ (KTMB) services  into the entire project.

The ECRL 3.0 alignment is expected to make the existing KTMB rail services more efficient by reducing the freight burden for the line which currently faces bottlenecks while traversing the central business district (CBD) of Kuala Lumpur. Furthermore, the new alignment will support the development of a national cargo centre in Serendah by increasing the efficiency of freight movement for both KTMB and ECRL services.

This new alignment is also expected to reduce the ECRL project’s construction costs from RM55.5 billion, projected under the ECRL 2.0 alignment, to around RM50 billion based on a value engineering analysis.

 Construction phases

 The ECRL will be constructed in two main phases.

Phase 1

 Phase 1 of the ECRL will include the construction of stations and tunnels between Kota Bharu and Bentong in Pahang. Phase 1 will include the development of key stations along the ECRL such as the Integrated Transport Terminal Gombak (ITT Gombak), which will serve as the Kelana Jaya Line’s future interchange and the main long-distance bus terminal. In Kuantan, two stations will be constructed, Kuantan Port City 1 for passengers and Kuantan Port City 2 for freight. Some parts of the line near the Kuala Lumpur city centre in Gombak will be built underground.

Works in the first phase will include a total of 50 km of tunnelling and underground alignment. Most of the tunnelling work will be conducted in the Gombak–Bentong area and will include the drilling of an 18-km twin-hill tunnel. There will also be multiple underground lines, including one in Gombak, near Kuala Lumpur. Construction works in Phase 1 of the ECRL are projected to cost around RM46 billion.

Phase 1 of construction will reduce travel time from Kelantan’s Kota Bharu to Selangor’s ITT Gombak to less than four hours.

Phase 2

Phase 2 will include the construction of stations and tunnels from Gombak North to Port Klang via Serendah, as well as two additional future stations in Puncak Alam and Kapar. Most of the construction in this phase will be carried out in the state of Selangor. Construction of this phase of the ECRL is expected to cost RM9 billion.

Contractors

 Table 2 summarises the key contracts awarded for the ECRL project in Malaysia.
*NA – Not Available
Source: Global Mass Transit Research

Other contractors for the ECRL project include Bursa Malaysia, which was selected as the engineering and project management consultant for the project; FGV Holdings, which was contracted to provide logistics services; and SANY, which was chosen as the main contractor for drilling and construction equipment such as cranes, rotary drilling rigs, concrete pump machinery, and excavators.

In January 2021, MRL and CCCC reached an agreement on the appointment of Malaysia-based subcontractors and suppliers to contract at least 40 per cent of the civil works of the ECRL project excluding tunnelling works.

MRL and CCCC also signed a tripartite MoU with many state government-owned firms. The MoU is aimed at establishing collaborative ventures between MRL, CCCC, and the state governments by leveraging the implementation of the ECRL project in their respective states.

Use of digital technology

 The ECRL project will use digital technologies not only in its operations but also in the early stages of designing by using 3D models and utility models. There are four key areas where digital technologies will be used in daily operations. These are:

  1. Passenger service information management system (PSMIS): PSMIS will have an integrated digital platform to manage passenger information display system (PIDS), public address systems (PAS) and clock systems from the levels of both the operation control centre (OCC) and the station.
  2. Ticketing and freight management system: The ECRL will provide a digital platform to sell tickets to passengers online or via mobile apps. Passengers will be able to scan their online tickets through a bar/ QR code at the automatic gate machine. A freight management system will be designed to handle freight services like waybill acceptance, cargo management, and freight operation.
  3. Communications system: The ECRL communications system will employ an IP/MPLS network to transport IP traffic like HD-quality CCTV and VoIP telephone packets.
  4. Geographic information system (GIS) and Computerised Maintenance Management System (CMMS): The ECRL system will have two separate systems in CMMS and GIS, with plans to integrate both systems to locate ECRL assets on a digital map.

Figure 3 illustrates the main function of a CMMS.

Source: Malaysia Rail Link

 Impact of COVID-19 pandemic

 The first of the Movement Control Orders (MCOs) imposed by the Government of Malaysia came into force on March 18, 2020. MCO 2 was implemented in January 2021 and MCO 3 came into effect in May 2021. The third MCO overlaps with the schedule of most of the planned construction activities for the ECRL and hence has impacted the progress of the project.

Additionally, a major roadblock resulting from the pandemic has been the restriction on the movement of manpower. Access to an international workforce was also limited. For the workers who were available, working hours were restricted and the number of people who could actively work on the site was also reduced. This impacted most of the ongoing and planned tunnelling and ground treatment works. The overall manpower requirement should have reached 15,000 by now. Due to the MCOs and related delays, the current manpower was recorded at only 6,150 (41 per cent).

Figure 4 shows the ECRL manpower requirement during the development period of the project.

Source: Malaysia Rail Link

Land acquisition for the ECRL project was also halted during the duration of the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO). Many of the activities related to site possession and acquisition were delayed or halted during 2020 and 2021. Another issue that arose due to the pandemic-related restriction was the disruption in supply chains. Delivery of construction equipment and materials was delayed during the last year.

 Conclusion

The ECRL project is expected to play a key role in reducing the development gap between the eastern and western coastal regions of Malaysia. Once operational, the rail line is projected to increase the gross domestic product (GDP) of the three states of the East Coast Economic Region (ECER) in Peninsular Malaysia by 1.5 per cent. Other eastern states, which have traditionally relied on agriculture, will also benefit from a more rapid and efficient system of transportation.

According to a CIMB Group Holdings Bhd analysis, ECRL project-related employment is worth approximately RM200 billion. The construction of the ECRL will also have an impact on the construction of ports along its alignment path, with the East Coast Kwantan and Port Klang both requiring capacity extensions during the first phase of the railway construction.

As of March 2021, 21.4 per cent of the project had been finished. Despite the adjustments to the route, construction on the project between Kota Bharu on the East Coast and Port Klang on the West Coast is projected to be completed by December 2026, allowing commercial services to begin in 2027.

This article includes inputs from the presentation made by Tuan Haji Nor Rizan Mohd Akhir, Deputy Project Director, ECRL at the virtual conference on InfraBuild APAC hosted by Southeast Asia Infrastructure.