TRANSPORT is a hot topic across the globe – and Southeast Asia (SEA) is proposing plans to expand its rail network. The proposals are set to increase tourism to forgotten areas and help shake off the reputation of having one of the worst rail systems in the world.
According to a 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum, Laos, Philippines and Cambodia ranked low in the category for extensive, efficient and developed transport infrastructure.
Singapore and Malaysia, though, ranked second and eleventh, respectively, in the report.
The proposals for improving SEA’s transport network are so extensive, and cover such a broad land mass, it may be difficult to imagine how the railway systems might look and connect with each other.
Fortunately, James Clark, editor of the travel blog and guide Nomadic Notes, has compiled all the current and proposed rail network data in SEA and designed a detailed map of what the future of rail transport could look like.
“I have traveled around the region extensively. While riding on slow buses and antiquated railway systems, I wondered what Southeast Asia would be like if it had a functioning railway network, like in East Asian nations,” Clark told Travel Wire Asia.
The underdevelopment of transport networks in SEA is impacting the economy of the mainland and islands that make up this stunning part of the world. Laos has one of the world’s worst transport systems, with only 3.5 kilometers of railway and is also one of SEA’s least developed countries.
However, new proposals to lay 412km of railway tracks could see Laos become the crossroads of mainland Southeast Asia and open new tourist and trade routes for the economy.
“I think Laos will see the biggest transformation of any nation in Southeast Asia. With Southern China just a few hours’ train ride away, and an eventual fast train from Bangkok, it will open up the country,” said Clark.
“With new railways, there will be a new revolution in tourism, just as low-cost airlines revolutionized travel in the region over the last decade.
“New railways that are fast enough for short breaks will then be a boost for small destinations. For example, it would be feasible to get a fast train from Bangkok to Vang Vieng for the weekend.”
Clark made some proposals of his own, referring to them as “glaring omissions”. One of these is to build a link between Ranong in Thailand to Myeik in Myanmar. “In the short term, this would open up tourism in the deep south of Myanmar,” said Clark. “In the long term, this would enable traffic from Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand to be routed through to Yangon rather than going via Bangkok.”
Other official proposals include a line connecting Phnom Penh in Cambodia to Bangkok in Thailand by 2020.
Malaysia also has big plans to implement the world’s largest underground city beneath a new rail station. The highspeed rail station will connect Kuala Lumpur to Tumpat, along the east coast where there is currently no railway.
The acquisition of land to build railways, however, is difficult in many SEA countries. Lush rainforests and protected areas will be compromised for the railway’s construction. This could have a damaging effect on wildlife and deter tourists from visiting.
Bali, for example, is a magnet for tourists, however, as Clark said: “Bali is so built up now that I don’t think they would ever be able to implement a cross-island railway.
“There is also spirit tree or holy temple every 100 meters, so I don’t know where they would find the room to put it. It would have to be a tunnel built by an authoritarian government that has the power to evict everyone in its path.”
However, “most of the new lines plan to be electric, so that will be better than having more buses and trucks on the road belching diesel exhaust fumes,” Clark added.
Promises are often empty when it comes to politicians pork-barrelling for their region, but with some of 2016’s proposals well underway, there is hope for future rail plans.
“Every country has been promising projects for years, so I wouldn’t make a bet on any of them. It could be the one you least expect as well. The Laos railway has been proposed for years, so that is amazing that it is now fully underway,” said Clark.