Fast train to where, exactly?

Fast train to where, exactly?

Described by the British historian Peter Hopkirk as "the greatest assistance to the civil power in the administration of the country", an expansive railway network can bring prosperity to the settlements alongside its rails and the region it serves.

Hopkirk was describing the Trans-Siberian Railway, but today in Southeast Asia, it is hoped that the proposed Kunming-to-Singapore high-speed line will have a similar, if greater effect.

Last month, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced that his cabinet had approved the start of construction of a US$20-billion high-speed rail project with Chinese equipment and expertise. Linking Bangkok with Nakhon Ratchasima in the Northeast, the project is both domestically bold and regionally important.

The rail line, to be completed in 2021, would extend to provide a fast gateway to Laos, where China is currently building a high-speed rail line. But more importantly, policymakers hope to see a network eventually connecting to lands farther afield.

Seen as the bedrock for a vast high-speed rail network in Southeast Asia, its rails reaching like tentacles across the region, the Chinese-built and funded railway in Laos would enable travel from Kunming south to Vientiane and onward to Bangkok, with the ultimate aim of reaching Singapore at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.

The origins of this ambition can be traced to China's Belt and Road initiative, which envisions networks of economic corridors and trade routes originating from China's eastern seaboard and reaching as far as continental Europe.

With rail and road projects being developed throughout Central Asia, and Chinese-run ports and naval bases being set up in Sri Lanka and East Africa, the Belt and Road provides the blueprint for Beijing's bold plans to seize the mantle of global leadership as a Trump-led America recedes from the role.

But in Southeast Asia, is high-speed rail really a smart investment? Or is it a Chinese-led power grab that ignores economic viability and could potentially create a white elephant?

Economist Somphob Manarangsan believes the rail project offers the region significant economic potential and a boost in Chinese foreign direct investment, "with Thailand at the hub, connecting to CLMV [Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam]".

However, the exact increase in GDP that would result is unclear, and tangible avenues to export back into China are similarly clouded.

Many economic thinkers, concerned by the lack of credible feasibility studies, argue that different forms of rail other than high-speed are more likely to generate regional economic development.

Among them is Sumet Ongkittikul, a research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute, who says: "I question whether the decision to build the high-speed train will be economically viable. Is it not more of a luxury good?"

Sompong Sirisoponsilp, an associate professor of transport at Chulangkorn University, acknowledges that railways can be catalysts for regional development but questions the high-speed model. "The way the project was conceived and how it has evolved, how it was proposed -- it violates everything I have taught my students."

For Mr Sompong, a double-track line carrying trains at speeds of 120km/h would be a greater facilitator and catalyst for regional growth. "It can do a better job than high-speed because it will stop at more stations. It would be a more cost-effective investment."

More stations would allow for more development of existing towns along the line and the new ones that would spring up, as well as providing a more affordable form of transport to increase passenger numbers.

Another problem for some is the very prospect of allowing a direct channel into Southeast Asia from China.

"[The Belt and Road] was created by the Chinese. Do we know the motive for this project?" asks Mr Sompong. "I don't know and we may never know.

"China is the most competitive market in the world. Are the products of Asean going to be able to compete in that market? The products made in China will flow much more easily into Southeast Asia. If that happens, what will happen to the businesses in the region making the same products?"

Is the project merely a luxury good that serves only as a decoration for the nations of Southeast Asia, or can it genuinely push the region forward technologically?

The project and its cheerleaders will encounter further questions and obstructions as it moves forward, and only when the dust has settled and the train has pulled out of the station can we gauge its success.

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