High-Speed & Away

It has always intrigued me that despite its constant civil and political strife, Thailand remains more effective in the construction of mega infrastructure projects than neighboring Malaysia. While Malaysia has always seen Singapore as the country to compete with in terms of economic, social and urban development, its true measure of comparison should actually be Thailand. Size and infrastructure wise, both countries started off more or less on equal footing. The two nations never quite had a culture of passenger rail services; tracks from the respective capitals were often one-directional only, and were mixed use, meaning that not only were they realistically unreliable for daily commute, they were also used for cargo. Moreover, both Thailand and Malaysia boast an excellent national highway system, therefore the bulk of domestic travel is conducted on roads. The advent of low-cost airlines has also made not only travel quicker and cheaper, but more accessible to the lower-classes.

Since they’re high capital expenditure, the capital cities was where modern rail proliferated. All too quick to solve traffic gridlock, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok both opted for various light and elevated mass transit option while speed was the primary motive on airport express trains to link the city centres with brand new greenfield airports farther outside the city than the ones they replaced. But while Thailand had a comprehensive plan to develop rail infrastructure from the get-go, including double-tracking, expansion of city and national rail lines, and high speed rail, albeit delayed by constant changes in government and coups, Malaysia’s plans however, seem a tad ‘short-sighted’.

160km/h - that's the fastest you'll ever be on Malaysian soil for the forseeable future

While Bangkok wasted no time in mass transit expansion after its ‘first wave’, KL remains stuck in the planning stage for its second wave primarily because such initiatives remain public-private partnerships, making bureaucratic hurdles hard to cross. Routes and station locations are constantly in dispute because the wealthier adopt the view that rapid transit as potentially destroying the social status quo of their nice suburban wealthy neighborhoods while private developers are unwilling to allow lines to pass through or allow stations to be built because the ‘private partner’ of the rail project is more often than not, a rival company. As we’ve seen in Singapore’s SMRT and Hong Kong’s MTR Corp, privatization is beneficial in keeping the lines profitable whilst in commercial service but on their own, they’d be powerless without the much-needed push and support from their central governments to string lines through commercial bullies and other bureaucratic issues. Bangkok initially faced this problem and its consequences were dire, with remnants of Bangkok’s ‘Stonehenge’ scattered all across the city; untouched pillars from the Hopewell Project leading to nowhere. With that lesson in mind, expansion in the Thai state is now spearheaded by the state and with budgeting and control from the state, and the results are all clear to see – with Bangkok’s Purple Line and Light Red Line in the midst of construction.

The only truly government-backed project in Malaysia is the double-tracking and electrification of the KTM Komuter Lines out of KL Sentral. The Sentul to Ipoh portion is complete with the Ipoh to Padang Besar project to begin construction imminently, and the Gemas to Johor Bahru phase at a later date. However, the project is being criticized to some extent, with the government being accused of being ‘short-sighted’ largely because of the choice of gauge. In rail terminology, there are several types of tracks, defined by the width of the tracks and are refered to as gauge. To save costs, Malaysia chose to essentially double-track its narrow gauge tracks instead of upgrading to the internationally recognized standard gauge (which is the same ones used by Singapore’s MRT trains). There are a few disadvantages to this; firstly, it limits the train’s maximum speed to just 160km/h and doesn’t allow operation of high speed rail (defined as at least 250km/h). This is to say that if Malaysia were to consider a high speed rail network in the future, it’d have to invest in a duplicate pair of tracks, complete with wider platforms in the future. Secondly, traveling at just 160km/h is not adequate enough to provide a clear advantage in speed to road travel since cars can easily travel at such high speeds on the nation’s highway network, and is uncompetitive with air travel.

China's CRH3 and CRH2 (right) travel regularly at speeds of up to 350km/h.

Thailand too, is proceeding with the slow but steady double-tracking and electrification of the nation’s narrow gauge network but they’re not just stopping there. China and Thailand have recently signed an agreement to help build Thailand’s first high speed rail line from Bangkok to Rayong, with the lines from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Nong Khai and Padang Besar to be built one after the other. This, in addition to a good cross-country system of air links and coach networks, will truly, make Thailand the first country in Southeast Asia to have a fully comprehensive national transportation system. Also, there are plans to link the Bangkok-Chiang Mai high speed rail line internationally into Kunming, to provide onward connections to Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing and the rest of China. But before you begin the China-bashing, China has leapt frog the world to become at the forefront of high speed rail development; from manufacturing trains, tracks, tunneling, et cetera. The country’s high speed rail network is on average, the fastest per kilometres, traveling regularly at cruise speeds of up to 350km/h, with 380km/h trains being put into service next year or so… so IF they are cutting corners, high speed rail is certainly one area they’re NOT cutting corners in.

At the forefront of high speed rail development, the CRH2-inspired CRH2-380 will travel up to 380km/h.

Some might argue that Malaysia has a tougher job at hand because unlike Bangkok-centric Thailand, Malaysia is more decentralized. However, except for Kuala Lumpur, urban transport development throughout the country continues to be lackluster at best. Others speculate that the country is focusing on fostering AirAsia’s growth; high speed rail in Malaysia would not only depress Malaysia Airlines’ domestic traffic even more, but will even turn Malaysians immune to AirAsia’s ‘low fares’ considering that KLIA is 50 kilometres south of the capital while trains will provide a direct, and more convenient ‘downtown-to-downtown’ connection, saving time and money needed to commute to the airport. In Asia, it has been a mixed bag; while China and Japan’s aviation and high speed rail ratios have reached, or reaching equilibrium, in Korea and Taiwan, particularly the latter, high speed rail has virtually wiped the words “domestic flights” literally from the face of airports. In addition, tens of airports in Korea have been abandoned because it’s no longer makes much sense to fly, except of course, between Seoul, Busan and Jeju.

Sacrificing high speed rail development to boost local airlines is the way to go in Malaysia

As for the ‘next’ piece of the puzzle, it’s only a matter of time that high speed rail will come knocking at Singapore’s door. Traffic between Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok will only continue to grow as the four original members of ASEAN continue to integrate into a closer, more integrated unit. But just like Hong Kong, the initiative cannot come from Singapore’s side but from Thailand and Malaysia, particularly the latter, depending on their willingness to take the leap into high speed rail. Singapore to KL will most certainly be quicker by train, particularly if you factor in the time taken to commute to the airport, check-in, wait for your flight, et cetera. Singapore to Bangkok will take longer than flying but with high speed rail technology reaching 400km/h soon, it COULD become a viable choice.

Someday in the future, hopefully not too long, I look forward to the day when after work at Raffles Place, I can just whisk off on a high speed train from a future Marina Bay terminal, do some last minute work or use the onboard wi-fi to get connected, and arrive just in time at Bangkok’s Bang Sue station in time for supper before clubbing, thus beginning my weekend getaway in Thailand! Or if I’m feeling a little bored with eating in Singapore, take a morning half-day off to travel to KL to have a real authentic Ampang Yong Tau Hoo for lunch. 😀

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