Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) land bridge between the ports of Kemaman, Terengganu and Kuantan, Pahang, linking shipping ports in the South China Sea and Port Klang in the Melaka Strait gets a massive boost, now the Thai mega project is very likely not going ahead.
The Kra land bridge proposal, linking Chumphon in the Gulf of Thailand with Ranong in the Andaman Sea has been criticised for undesirable environmental impacts, and is opposed by local residents along the route.
In addition, Thailand has so far failed to obtain investors for the project. In particular, China has lost interest in the project and has sorted out a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu in Myanmar’s Rakhine State as an effective route that avoids the Melaka Strait.
This port will also be serviced with a pipeline from China.
It’s unlikely the United States, South Korea, or Japan would commit to investing in the land bridge project, due to the huge costs, as ports need to be built from scratch.
Enter the ECRL land bridge
The ECRL from Kota Bharu in Kelantan to Port Klang via the ports of Kemaman and Kuantan will enable a land bridge to Port Klang.
This will allow a direct connection between the South China Sea and the Strait of Melaka.
The link should be highly competitive with the proposed Kra land bridge between Chumphon in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
The distance by sea for both projects are very similar, as ships using the proposed Kra project will have to cruise into the Gulf of Thailand first.
Thus, a competitive Kemaman/Gebeng to Port Klang land bridge in operation is a potential game-changer in Korea-Japan-Korea and MENA-European trade.
This could potentially build Port Klang into one of the most strategically important ports in the region.
The key to a successful ECRL land bridge is trimming down de-load and re-load times at the ports at both ends. This normally takes one to three days.
The land bridge authority will need to develop very efficient logistics to make the land bridge effective.
Secondly, charges must be very competitive with the costs for shipping companies using the existing shipping routes around Singapore.
Another improvement upon the land bridge would be to enable trains to travel up to the Penang Port, which would completely bypass the Melaka Strait and save another 1.5 days shipping time.
Most of the infrastructure already exists, and this route could in theory be in operation before the link to Port Klang is completed.
The ECRL land bridge would greatly reduce sea traffic in the Strait of Melaka. It would become an important route, should there be any mishap within the Melaka Strait.
China would become very interested in using the route, should the civil war in Myanmar render the Kyaukphyu too dangerous to use.
Strategically, the Melaka Strait is a dilemma for China.
Positive externalities from an existing project
Since the ECRL is an ongoing project, the land bridge will provide massive positive externalities that will benefit both the east and west coasts.
The land bridge will boost shipping, transport, and provide Malaysia another lever to be competitive over the Port of Singapore.
In effect, the ECRL land bridge will require minimal investment, above what has already been committed. What is needed most is Malaysian politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspeople to jump in and support the country’s upcoming land bridge project, rather than look at the failed Thai proposal in awe.
Malaysia’s land bridge could become one of the region’s most strategic assets, and will project Malaysia’s economy forward.
In 2021, 22 percent of the world’s maritime trade worth US$5.3 trillion passed through the South China Sea into the Melaka Strait.
This is one project where Malaysia boleh.
(Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 40 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic and researcher. He was an associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Perlis.)