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The Middle Kingdom is exporting its high-speed trains

China’s Railways for Southeast Asia

Everyone is currently talking about China’s ambitious Silk Road initiative. Whether it’s by sea or land transport – trade is set to flourish on multiple traffic routes between Europe and the Middle Kingdom. Between the construction of new ports in the Indian Ocean and new railways in Central Asia, there is one sub-plot that seems to have receded into the background: the construction of railways on high-speed lines in Southeast Asia.

When speaking of sleek high-speed trains, one might immediately think of Germany, France or Japan who can boast of innovations such as ICE, TGV or Shinkansen. With speeds beyond the 200 km/h mark, these marvels of technology appear to glide effortlessly across the rails and travel vast distances without issue. The fastest of these trains, the TGV V150, even reached a speed of 574.79 km/h in 2007 on a test track.

China expanding its rail tracks at breakneck speed

These days, however, China is considered the ultimate benchmark. The country has been holding the record for the longest high-speed railway (Peking-Guangzhou) to China since 2012 and, needless to say, has the most high-speed railway kilometers out of any country worldwide. The rapid transformation of China’s railway system dates back as far as two decades ago. In 1997, Beijing officially announced a national policy for the construction of a high-speed railway network. It quickly became apparent that this was more than just a vanity project. A decade later, in 2007, the first intercity high-speed railways appeared on the scene. Today, there are 30,000 kilometers’ worth of high-speed lines with a total track network of just over 131,000 km.

The Middle Kingdom is traversed by high-speed tracks

China has announced that it will make every effort to extend the length of the network up to 75,000 km by 2025. So far, this initiative has ensured that 80% of China’s major cities are accessible by high-speed train. It is hardly surprising that China has grown to become one of the most important protagonists in the railway industry. State-owned train manufacturer China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC for short) is also the world’s largest manufacturer and world leader in high-speed trains.

Plans to expand route network abroad

The extension of China’s railway network is steadily progressing within the country, but it doesn’t stop at national borders. In the scope of the Silk Road initiative, the Chinese government continues to harbor an interest in strengthening its position on the Southeast Asian market. To provide its own economy with easier access to new markets and facilitate trade, the country is investing in high-quality train paths. Equipped with ample project budgets, the government has been energetically pressing ahead with these plans for a while now. The initiative is split up into four sections: From South Chinese Kunming to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. From there, the route continues to Bangkok, Thailand. And the last two segments of the comprehensive infrastructural project will provide access to Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) and Singapore. Once the new route is completed, the trip from Kunming to Singapore will take only 30 hours. In the final stage (2040), the travel time will be shortened to 18 hours – an enormous reduction compared to the current 90 hours. Of course, the freight trains would not achieve the speeds of aerodynamically designed passenger trains, but goods transport would nonetheless be significantly accelerated – on some routes, freight traffic should manage to reach a speed of approximately 150 km/h.

Thailand has joined the bandwagon

The agreement between Thailand and China, announced in September 2019, was an important breakthrough. For Thailand, the project is divided into two phases. The first comprises a track section worth 3.7 billion euro, reaching across over 252.5 km from Bangkok to Nakhon Rathasima. The second section, whose construction will cost nearly 6 billion euro, will lead 355 further kilometers from Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai, a northeastern border province to Laos. The introduction of the new route is planned for 2023, and trains will be traversing it with 250 km/h.

Will Laos benefit from the rail connection?

Laos is known as one of the poorest countries in the world and, until recently, had no noteworthy railway infrastructure aside from a four kilometer long track on the Thai border. With these recent developments, the country is suddenly entering the sphere of high-speed trains. Between the Chinese Kunming and Laos’ capital of Vientiane, constructions for the route that will traverse the entire country have been underway since 2016. Even if geographic circumstances will most likely necessitate a speed limit of 200 km/h, Laos’ government expects this route to bring wealth and economic benefits. This is exactly where the downside of these projects comes to light. Construction costs will amount to 5.7 billion euro and since the country cannot fund the project itself, it’s only chipping in for 30% of the costs. The rest is financed by the big neighbor in the north.

A technical feat built on debt

The deal seems clear: Credit in return for mineral deposits. In lieu of payment, China expects convenient access to mineral ores, rare earths as well as timber and rubber. With this debt, Laos has become the fourth most strongly indebted country in the world, and one can only hope that agriculture and tourism will benefit from this deal, given how the country is still a virtually unspoiled travel destination.

However, the rail route itself might transform into an attraction. Starting with a 9,680 km long tunnel passing underneath the border between the two countries, the 414 km long route traverses the jagged Truong-Son mountains. The construction of the 75 tunnels and 167 bridges amid the instable limestone of the mountain range is a challenge of itself. When the route opens in 2021, it is estimated that 47 percent of the rail tracks will run through tunnels. If one were to line up all these tunnels, they would lead all the way from Japan to Korea.

Desired by all, yet the costs are hard to swallow

At the southern end of Indochina, things are a bit different. In 2013, the governments of Malaysia and Singapore agreed to the construction of a 350 km high-speed railway route which is set to become part of the comprehensive network between South China and Singapore. Due to the enormous costs, however, the project was intermittently adjusted and the planned inauguration has been rescheduled by five years to 2031. These deliberations are anything but isolated cases. Similar notions have already caused delays and subsequent adaptations in Thailand and Vietnam.

But even if the speed at which these new routes are being built cannot match that of the trains – it is clear that these projects will lead to a renaissance of rail transport in Southeast Asia.

Expertise in Southeast Asia

cargo-partner started its activities in Asia in 2004 with the opening of two offices in China and Taiwan. Four years later, the logistics provider expanded its focus on the ASEAN region with the opening of an office each in Thailand and Singapore. In the following years, cargo-partner continued its growth in Southeast Asia to Malaysia (2011), Vietnam (2013), Myanmar (2017) and Cambodia (2018). Today, cargo-partner is represented with over 160 employees in the region and offers its customers a comprehensive range of services.

Among our special strengths in Indochina is our land-air service from Myanmar and Cambodia to Europe and the USA. We organize road transport from Myanmar and Cambodia to Thailand, airfreight to any destination within Europe and the USA as well as final delivery to the consignee. With this service, we can achieve a total transit time of 5-10 days while benefiting from much larger capacities than in direct air transport, resulting in stable rates all year round.

This is just one example of our innovative solutions in the region. Contact our local experts and we will create a tailor-made logistics service package suited to your needs!