Comment: Huge benefits but many challenges for high-speed rail between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur

IS A HIGH-SPEED RAILWAY FINANCIALLY VIABLE?

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 only be 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.

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 rocky progress of negotiations over Chinese support for a high-speed rail connection between Bangkok and Nong Khai in northern Thailand suggests 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.

Jose P. Rogers