Upgrading Conventional Railways in Asia: A Practical Alternative to High Speed Rail?

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Upgrading Conventional Railways in Asia: A Practical Alternative to High Speed Rail?

Rather than go all in on HSR now, Southeast Asian countries could focus on upgrading their current narrow gauge systems.

Upgrading Conventional Railways in Asia: A Practical Alternative to High Speed Rail?
Credit: Flickr / My Train Pix

Malaysia’s proposal to use conventional railway lines to replace the high-speed rail (HSR) project between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur may turn attention to the value of the existing narrow gauge network in Southeast Asia.

Due to lower costs, the new Malaysian administration plans to upgrade the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM, the Malaysian governmental rail company) rail line to be an alternative to the expensive Singapore-Kuala Lumpur HSR project. Although the estimated travel time of 130 minutes would be a great challenge for construction and operation, this proposal raises a fundamental question: is HSR really necessary for Southeast Asian countries?

HSR Constraints in the Region

Building HSR in Southeast Asia is different from most established HSR systems for the different gauges of their conventional rail systems. Among the 29 states having HSR, 27 have conventional networks with either standard (1.435 meter) or wide gauges (1.52m for Uzbekistan, Russia, and Finland). HSR projects for these systems are upgrades of original lines because many facilities can be shared between the original services and the new HSR.

In contrast, HSR projects in countries using narrow gauges, whether 1 or 1.067m gauge, are additional and separated systems which require whole new sets of infrastructure and facilities, and are thus much more expensive to build. Furthermore, HSR lines cannot connect with existing narrow gauge rail networks, adding cost and time to transfers. The disconnection also denies extension of freight services through the existing network due to different gauges. Overall change of gauge for the original network is technologically feasible, but the huge scale of work, as well as costs, would be impractical for most Southeast Asian countries.    

Speed is the splendid advantage for HSR, but shadowed with affordability. HSR can reach 300km/hr or faster, in contrast to 160km on narrow gauge under specific technical conditions, such as slope and curve. However, the large costs of construction are usually unrecoverable nowadays, despite achievable profits from operation. Countries building HSR therefore are supposed to have sufficient economic capacity to wait for the overall economic growth to compensate for the construction costs or bear the loss if not. For many Southeast Asian HSR projects that greatly rely on foreign loans for construction, the waiting period and the risk of loss could be serious.

The Narrow Gauge Solution

Due to the inconvenience and costs, to upgrade the conventional railway systems could be a temporary alternative to HSR for Southeast Asian countries. The upgraded narrow gauge lines can increase the efficiency of a whole network which benefits both passengers and cargo. Obviously, narrow gauge trains are not more competitive than HSR, but their broader network can reach more locations than HSR. The availability for freight trains would be more valuable, because many regional countries are suffering serious traffic jams because of overreliance on highway systems and insufficient capacity in parallel with their economic growth. Freight rail services serve as a feasible solution to highway traffic, using less land and producing less pollution. The broader networks would be critical for considerable replacement of trucks in carrying cargo. Existing conventional rail networks are usually accessible to the downtowns of most regional metropolitans, that means no need for new stations in suburban areas plus additional transfer arrangements or large construction in urban areas.

As for passengers who need fast transportation, aviation presents an alternative in the interim. While HSR requires construction all the way between endpoints, aviation only needs two airports and a few facilities for navigation. Therefore, the costs of both construction and maintenance are distinctive between HSR and aviation. Traditionally, HSR can provide lower prices for costs broadly shared by more passengers than aviation, but budget airlines can provide similarly cheap or even cheaper fares than HSR.

It must be noted that developing conventional railway is a broad spectrum between advanced goals, such as the Malaysian project of raising the speed in the Southern section of West Coast Line to 160km/hr, to the other end of resuming services, such as the Philippines’ rebuilding the northern line between Manila and Bulacan. The wide variety endows governments flexibility to take affordable steps in contrast to a major and expensive HSR project. Regional rail operators and related industries could play a bigger role compared to HSR for lower technological requirements. By the same token, it would be less likely for a single or a few foreign contractors to dominate or exert a monopoly on technological affairs.

In fact, all Southeast Asian countries with narrow gauge railway are upgrading their networks. Aside from Malaysia’s HSR substitution, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are undergoing respective upgrades, but most projects are for partial modernization, such as more automatic signal and blocking systems, new rollingstock, and double tracking. In other words, there is much potential for their conventional networks to progress.

The introduction of HSR would become economically adequate after marginal effects shown in upgrading or regional countries achieving better financial capacity, like in the cases of Japan and Taiwan. Both Japan and Taiwan invested a lot of in their narrow 1.067m gauge network in the post-war era, and respectively chose to build additional HSR systems in the mid-1950s and 1990s, when the conventional rail network reached certain bottlenecks.  

However, the gradual nature of upgrading narrow gauge rail networks may not match with the trend of fast growing economies in some regional countries. Moreover, lack of dramatic progress would not create strong impacts on people, which is not an effective way to accumulate political credits, whether on the economic growth through investment on infrastructure or salient improvement of rail service.

In the meantime, Malaysia’s KTM alternative has not been fully confirmed, but its goal of traveling between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in 130 minute would be technologically difficult. The the current 397km KTM line between the two capitals would be shortened through upgrading construction, and  an average speed of about 160km/hr — a much greater challenge than maximal speed of 160km/hr — would be still necessary for the planned travel time. As such, the KTM alternative may be eventually slower than the current plan, given that is carried out, and costs would matter more than speed.

Wu Shang-su is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.