Misaligned rails keep SEAsia delinked from China

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Train cars at Bangkok's Hua Lamphong railway station. Photo: AFP

Last month’s launch of a 70-kilometer rail line between Sisophon and Battambang in northwestern Cambodia, a region that hasn’t seen a running train since the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge era, is the latest link in a flurry of regional train-building aimed nominally at promoting regional “connectivity.”

Cambodian Transport Minister Sun Chanthol said the link was the next step towards linking Poipet on the Thai-Cambodian border to Phnom Penh, the capital, by the end of June. But like many of the rails being built in Southeast Asia, it will stop at the border unconnected to neighboring Thailand.

To be sure, the trains are good news for politicians like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose Cambodian People’s Party is campaigning for upcoming elections in July in part on its ability to deliver economic growth and goods.

Extending and refurbishing railways, while driving many countries into deep debt, appeals to many Southeast Asian leaders as powerful symbols of economic modernization.

For the past five decades, building new roads and highways provided greater political capital, as the infrastructure is more quickly built and easy to take credit for at election time.

But while the buzz word in Southeast Asia these days may be “connectivity,” in line with the region’s new free trade agreement promoting greater mobility of goods and labor, how interconnected is the region really becoming and do governments truly want fast-line links to China?

CRH380 (China Railway High-speed) Harmony bullet trains are seen at a high-speed train maintenance base in Wuhan, Hubei province, early December 25, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

China Railway high-speed Harmony bullet trains at a maintenance base in Wuhan, Hubei province, in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Much of the focus on rails is attributable to mainland China, which has expanded its domestic railway network exponentially over the past two decades and is now looking to connect to Asia and Europe under the umbrella of its US$1 trillion dollar Belt Road Initiative (BRI).

China’s enthusiasm for trains has inspired a rash of new railway projects across mainland Southeast Asia, most of which, however, have little to do with connecting to China and its BRI.

Cambodia has been upgrading its meter-gauge train track since 2006, trying to get its two former lines – the 385 kilometer northern line between Poipet-Phnom Phnom and the 256 kilometer southern line between Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville – up and running.

Royal Railway Co Ltd, a private operator with a 30-year concession to operate the Cambodian Railway Network, has operated a freight service to Sihanoukville’s deep sea port since 2011, giving truck transport a run for its money and cutting prices in the process. Royal Railway now claims 40% of Sihanoukville’s container traffic.

The envisaged Poipet-Phnom Penh line could benefit Cambodia’s rice exports, as the country’s rice basin lies in the country’s western Sisophon-Battambang region. Rice is currently trucked from the area to Phnom Penh, costing between US$350 to US$650 per 20-foot container depending on the season.

This could be cut by around half if the rail link is operating, which would make Cambodian rice exports more competitive on the world market. Cambodian jasmine rice is already popular in China and Europe.

With the Poipet-Sisophon line open, Cambodian rice could conceivably also be freighted to Thailand’s Laem Chabang deep sea port on the Eastern Seaboard, in line with the regional free trade area’s vision of more cross-border trade.

Thailand now operates a meter gauge single track service to Aranyaprathet, its border station across from Poipet, and has built a dual track link between Chachoengsao province outside of Bangkok and Laem Chabang. The Aranyaprathet-Poipet rail connection was completed earlier this year.

Cambodia-Trains-Royal Railway-Giry-2018-Peter Janssen

Royal Railway chief executive officer John Guiry waiting at Phnom Penh’s train station. Photo: Peter Janssen

“We’re just waiting on the Thai government to sign the cross-border [train traffic] agreement. Once that agreement is signed, off we go,” said John Guiry, Royal Railway’s chief executive officer.

That’s not a given, though. Thailand has signed similar joint train traffic agreements already with Malaysia and Laos and wants to stick to that template despite Cambodia’s request for slight changes to accommodate their particular circumstances.

The Thai Foreign Ministry has recently stepped into the picture, saying that the Thailand-Cambodian train traffic agreement must be similar to the ones with Malaysia and Laos, said State Railway of Thailand Deputy Governor Voravuth Mala.

Regional logistics expert Ruth Banomyong, head of the Transport Department at Bangkok’s Thammasat Business School, says such border snags could be remedied if there was a regionwide joint train traffic agreement in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as exists in the European Union.

“It’s a question for all the train investments because they just talk about building the lines and that is it,” Ruth said. “They don’t talk about the actual modality of managing a system that is supposed to go across borders. You probably need a new agreement for international rail transport for the region.”

The need will become greater as various rail projects near completion. For instance, Laos has gone ahead with the construction of a US$6 billion 414-kilometer “medium speed” train, standard gauge track, linking the Mohan-Boten pass on the Laos-China border to Vientiane, the Lao capital.

The project, part of China’s BRI scheme and 70% financed by China, is scheduled for completion in December 2021.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha takes a window seat on board a special train. A political foe to Yingluck, he has disavowed the "rice-for-bullet train" agreement with China. Photo: Bangkok Post via AFP/Chanat Katanyu

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha takes a window seat on board a special train. Photo: Bangkok Post via AFP/Chanat Katanyu

On the Thai side, the SRT is pursuing plans to transform its existing single track one-meter track to border town Nong Khai, which already extends 3.5 kilometers into Laos across the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge into a dual track meter gauge.

However, there is little connectivity between the standard gauge (1.435 meters) track rail line China is building in Laos and the one meter gauge Thailand maintains. Thailand is also moving ahead with a high-speed railway link between Bangkok and Nong Khai, with Chinese technical assistance, but the project’s future is far from certain.

It will offer Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha a photo opportunity in October when a 3-kilometer test spur for a Bangkok line to Nakorn Ratchasima city in the country’s middle and far from the Lao border is scheduled for completion. The link connecting Nakorn Ratchasima to Nong Khai and on to China through Laos is still at a blueprint phase.

“I think you have to look at it this way, do you really want to live with China or not?” said Ruth.

Indeed, those disconnected lines and mismatched gauges raise questions about Asean’s true commitment to boosting connectivity with China, particularly when nearly all national railway expansion projects now underway are sticking with one-meter tracks opposed to China’s standard gauge.

“Cambodia has around 600 kilometers of rail network which is being rehabilitated, Vietnam has about 2,000 kilometers, Myanmar more than 5,000 kilometers and Thailand more than 4,000 kilometers and all of them are meter gauge,” SRT’s Voravuth said.

“So we members of Asean Railways on the mainland, including Malaysia, will not change the gauge of our existing network.”

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