The high-speed train dilemma

The medieval Dutch canon cleric Thomas van Kempen once said, “The higher the building, the deeper the foundation must be.” Kempen, the cleric, was obviously speaking in a metaphorical sense, using base-building lingo to get his point across on spiritual development.

It is, after all, common sense that any structure should be rooted on a solid foundation – one that is capable of supporting not only the weight, but the intended purpose of said structure. The same goes for a project in the modern era – whether or not the project has a physical component – ​​without a solid foundation to start with, any project is doomed.

Last month, Malaysian Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong and his Thai counterpart Saksayam Chidchob signed a memorandum of understanding to study the feasibility of building a Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur high-speed train project. On paper, it seemed like a great idea. If the project ever goes beyond the drawing board, the line will connect around 30 million people living in the two cities. It will provide a faster and more efficient alternative to the now defunct Train 35, or “International Express”, which ran from Bangkok to Fort Butterworth in Penang. (The service now terminates at Padang Besar, requiring passengers to disembark and connect to another Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) service to get to their destination).

However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the lofty dream of providing a high-speed rail link between the two metropolises has no solid foundation. First, for the service to be commercially viable, if not sustainable, it must be able to compete with airliners, capable of connecting the city pair in less than two hours. At last count, the city pair is served by at least 12 direct flights. High-speed rail will struggle to cope with flexibility, especially in the early stages of operation, without spending even more to promote and/or subsidize the service to make it attractive to passengers.

Combined with the fact that the two cities are home to many low-cost carriers whose entire business is based on providing connections at the lowest possible fares, the future operator of the proposed high-speed trains – which could only promise to connect the cities in less than six hours, given the limitations of existing technology and the terrain — will be hard pressed to justify the high capital cost of the project. In addition, to the high investment cost is added the price of securing along the restless south, which the line will have to cross to get to Bangkok.

Aside from die-hard rail fans and travelers whose destinations aren’t served by existing scheduled passenger services – of which there aren’t many – who else would sit on a train likely to be more expensive, unless it is subsidized by the National Railway of Thailand, which at present is essentially a bankrupt agency and takes three times as long?

Before making the leap to high-speed rail, both governments will be best served by improving the state of their current services. While KTM has electrified dual tracks running from KL to the Thai border, aging diesel SRT services still have to share tracks with freight trains, causing massive delays. Solving these problems will benefit the citizens of both countries far more than a high-profile project like high-speed rail.

Editorial

Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent the Bangkok Post’s thoughts on current issues and situations.

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Jose P. Rogers