Proceed with caution: high-speed train to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur
With the easing of pandemic restrictions, especially for travel, some Southeast Asian countries have resumed pursuit of improved intra-regional connectivity. The Malaysian and Thai governments set up a joint committee last month to explore high-speed rail links between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
High-speed rail has a lot in its favor for Malaysia and Thailand. Thanks to the rapid development of bilateral economic integration, including cross-border production chains, the demand for travel between the two countries has increased. The two metropolises, Bangkok with 16.2 million inhabitants and Kuala Lumpur with 8.4 million inhabitants, present strong potential markets for high-speed rail.
Both governments also favor rail systems as a way to improve ground transportation. Despite an unsuccessful high-speed rail project with Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is building the east coast rail link and upgrading the existing conventional networks of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM, Malayan Railways). Bangkok is known for its ambitious high-speed rail plans, with four routes indicated in the design of the new Bang Sue Grand station, in addition to improving the conventional networks of the National Railway of Thailand (SRT).
Straddling Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur would create a route that could be connected to other high-speed rail lines, especially from Bangkok, to form wider networks extending to Laos and China. Besides passengers, the likely standard gauge could serve direct freight services to China and other destinations through developments related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As such, it is not surprising that Thailand and Malaysia see a project linking the two capitals as a joint venture.
But there are hurdles – some unpleasantly high.
The relatively long distance between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur puts a high-speed rail line at a disadvantage compared to aviation. High-speed rail competes with aviation for distances between 200 and 1,000 kilometres, taking into account the likely time advantages given that railway stations are generally closer to city centres. But according to the precise route, the distance between the Thai and Malaysian capitals is between 1400 and 1500 kilometers, which gives an advantage to air transport. Many low-cost carriers operate from Malaysia and Thailand, so high-speed trains may not offer a cheaper alternative to flying either. The financial record might not accumulate.
Coordination will be another challenge. Previous high-speed rail and other major rail projects in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur respectively have been supported by external technology and financing providers, mainly through Beijing. Likewise, this high-speed rail project could not be simply bilateral, as neither Malaysia nor Thailand would have the technology or sufficient capital to carry out the project. Although Japan is willing to promote its locally built Shinkansen systems overseas, its restrictive financial support may not be suitable for this project, exemplified by a lack of progress with Thailand on another development between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
A major hurdle is that any high-speed rail link from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur will inevitably have to pass through southern Thailand where an insurgency remains active.
Currently, China would seem the most likely candidate to serve as an external supplier, linking the project as part of the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL), a wider development between China and several members of the Association of Southeast Asia. It would be uncertain whether Chinese policymakers are still eager to secure overseas projects, as they did in the pre-pandemic era. The ups and downs of negotiations for Chinese support for a high-speed rail connection between Bangkok and Nong Khai in northern Thailand suggest that China’s financial capacity and flexibility have limits. Problems elsewhere, such as the Belgrade-Budapest high-speed rail project, may have dampened Beijing’s enthusiasm.
A major hurdle is that any high-speed rail link from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur will inevitably have to pass through southern Thailand where an insurgency remains active. Fixed structures, such as tracks, bridges and other facilities along a high-speed rail line, could be obvious targets for sabotage. Improving security along the route would increase costs and the protection might not be comprehensive enough.
With all these constraints, the joint committee may have difficulty deciding on the feasibility of the proposal. But a high-speed line is not the only option for rail transport. The existing KTM and SRT lines between the two capitals are available for upgrade. While KTM has electrified and double-tracked its west coast line from Kuala Lumpur to the border, the SRT section needs more improvements where diesel engines run along a single track. Upgrading these sections won’t offer fast transit, nor the potential connection to China, but it would be more affordable.
Additionally, an upgrade project would be more assessable for passengers and freight and would be compatible with existing meter gauge networks in both countries. Malaysia has offered to upgrade its KTM line to be an alternative to the high-speed rail project to Singapore, and a similar option may also be available for the committee to decide between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
At the risk of a pun, the committee is only now leaving at the start of a long journey.