This is a Guest Post by Nick R.
The Malaysian rail network is remarkably similar to New Zealand’s. So similar in fact they actually run some old New Zealand Rail carriages on a tourist train the length of the country. Much like New Zealand, Malaysian rail was developed by the British in the colonial era using the cheap and cheerful approach to linking the main population, industrial centres and ports together. It is characterised by winding, narrow gauge alignments of single track, with relatively small diesel trains running at slow speeds across level crossings and old bridges.
Or at least it was.
Eight years ago, I caught the train from the capital Kuala Lumpur to the second largest urban area in Malaysia: the twin cities of Butterworth-Georgetown in the northern state of Penang, not too far from the Thai border. This 400km journey took around seven to eight hours at a leisurely average pace of about 55km/h. At the time the route was so slow this train ran as an overnight sleeper, with bunk beds for the passengers to sleep through the night. A fun experience for a backpackers’ holiday, but hardly a serious transport proposition.
But a few years ago all that changed. The Malaysian government did a comprehensive overhaul of the line to turn it from an an ailing freight line into a higher-speed rapid rail route. This project was impressive in its extent and outcomes.
They electrified and double tracked the whole line, purchased brand new narrow gauge electric tilt trains and a new depot to keep them in, upgraded stations, eased curves, rebuilt the trackbed to high speed standards, grade separated road crossings, fixed all the drainage along the way, built one major tunnel to bypass a mountain range, and combined that with a new viaduct to skip a particularly windy section of route. This was topped off with a new branch line into the city of Butterworth to access a new terminal station.
In short, they done went and fixed everything from end to end.
Now to be clear this isn’t true high speed rail. While it is the fastest metre gauge train in the world, the top speed in service is still a relatively gentle 140km/h. However the real magic comes not from top speed but from average speed. The upgraded track and tilting trains let them maintain an average of around 110km/h on the line, including through the curves and allowing for stops, which is twice as fast as the old line used to manage.
From the outside, the train look the part. They just look fast. An while the Malaysian, and New Zealand, loading gauge requires somewhat narrow trains, this is made up with by using long trains with six or eight carriages. Onboard the trains are great: new, efficient, tidy, well laid out… unremarkable even. There is no sensation of tilting, the ride quality is good and you don’t really notice the speed despite the tight curves and narrow tracks. About the most interesting thing is the scenery, and the range of noodle dishes available at the cafe counter.
So the results? Well these days the new express takes just 3 hours 35 minutes between Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth, or a just over four hours will all the stops. It has literally halved the travel time. Clearly that kind of speed is a game changer, and indeed rather than one overnight train they now run twelve return trips a day, with departures every half hour at peak times.
Clearly a fantastic improvement, but what of the cost? Obviously this scale of comprehensive upgrade isn’t cheap. In total, the whole package of tracks, electrification, stations, trains, depots and crossings for 400km cost the equivalent of around $7 billion NZ dollars, or about NZ$18m per kilometre. This is a significant sum for sure, but still an order of magnitude cheaper than true high speed rail.
What does this mean for New Zealand? Given the similarity of the train and track systems between the two countries, it’s reasonable to expect we could do a full electric rapid rail overhaul for about the same cost per kilometres.
Using those costs and outcomes as a benchmark, we could give the 90km of train line between Papakura and Hamilton the full bells and whistles double-track-electric-rapid-ra
Of course that makes for great passenger connections, but it also means a fully electric, double track and faster line for freight trains too. That raises an interesting proposition: with Auckland to Hamilton done we’d have electrification from Auckland all the way to Palmerston North, that’s handy for clean and efficient freight movements. So wouldn’t it be a good idea to also electrify out to Tauranga and the major port there?
We can sketch up that idea pretty easily too. I’ve seen some documents that put the price of electrifying New Zealand main lines at $2.5m per kilometre. I believe this includes minor track works and drainage, but no realignments or speed upgrades. So not the higher speed upgrade at $18m a km, but a regular electrified main like with average speeds of 80km/h or so. If we apply that to the 95km long rail line from Hamilton to Tauranga, we get a cost of about $240m. So this would allow fully electric freight on the main trunks between Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Palmerston North. And combined with the above, we would be looking at a passenger train time between Tauranga and Auckland of a touch over two and a half hours, and Hamilton to either Auckland or Tauranga in less than 90 minutes.
All up, using the Malaysian upgrade as a guide this programme would cost about two billon dollars. That is a very significant chunk of money, but it would buy not only a regional rapid rail system with frequent electric passenger trains running at fast average speeds between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, it would also fix up and electrify the main freight routes of the North Island. A relative bargain compared to some of our highway projects?