On a flight back to New York from Tokyo two weeks ago I happened to be seated next to a Chinese consultant from Shanghai, currently working with the government on plans for a high-speed rail link from China to Europe, India, and Southeast Asia. Let’s just say I might have caught a glimpse of his PowerPoint presentation, where a map of Europe and Asia came on the screen several times with a red line linking various points. I engaged him in conversation, explaining my travel obsession, and luckily he was very excited to talk about his work. Yes, I realize the irony here! I would hate if someone was staring over my shoulder at my screen and would be even more angered if they then started talking to me about my private work. I can happily say this is the first time I have ever done this and it was all for the benefit of the blog…
Anyway, the plans sound really exciting with new domestic high-speed lines in China gradually linking up to newly laid tracks throughout India and Pakistan. High-speed lines would eventually be built to link the India/Pakistan tracks with Eastern Europe. Another set would go directly north into Mongolia and Russia before linking up with Eastern Europe. Finally, a third set of tracks would progress southwards to link with Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. He hoped that by 2020, train service would be safe, cost effective, and take under 2 days from Beijing to anyof these locations. It all sounded great, but I was somewhat skeptical. I did some Google research when I got back and to my surprise actually found an article from the UK Telegraph discussing similar plans, though it was written back in 2010. I couldn’t find anything more recent to confirm the status of the project, though the possibility is interesting and exciting nonetheless. The article alludes to several obstacles including funding and government restrictions, which seem to make the possibility of this actually occurring in only eight years highly improbable. Anyway, it was definitely a nice way to kill some time on the flight and I of course reminded him to mention some loyalty program ideas to the marketing folks. From the UK Telegraph:
Malcolm Moore/Shanghai/08 Mar 2010: China is in negotiations to build a high-speed rail network to India and Europe with trains capable of running at over 200mph within the next ten years. The network would eventually carry passengers from London to Beijing and then to Singapore. It would also run to India and Pakistan, according to Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a senior consultant on China’s domestic high-speed rail project. A second project would see trains heading north through Russia to Germany and into the European railway system, and a third line will extend south to connect Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Malaysia. Passengers could board a train in London and step off in Beijing, 5,070 miles away as the crow flies, in just two days. They could go on to Singapore, 6,750 miles away, within three days. “We are aiming for the trains to run almost as fast as aeroplanes,” said Mr Wang. “The best case scenario is that the three networks will be completed in a decade,” he added. Mr Wang said that China was already in negotiations with 17 countries over the rail lines, which will draw together and open up the whole of Central, East and South East Asia. Mr Wang said the network would also allow China to transport valuable cargoes of raw materials more efficiently.“It was not China that pushed the idea to start with,” said Mr Wang. “It was the other countries that came to us, especially India. These countries cannot fully implement the construction of a high-speed rail network and they hoped to draw on our experience and technology,” he said. China is in the middle of a ?480 billion domestic railway expansion project that aims to build nearly 19,000 miles of new railways in the next five years, connecting up all of its major cities with high-speed lines. The world’s fastest train, the Harmony Express which has a top speed of nearly 250mph, was unveiled at the end of last year, between the cities of Wuhan and Guangzhou. Wholly Chinese-built, but using technology from Siemens and Kawasaki, the Harmony Express can cover 660 miles, the equivalent of a journey from London to Edinburgh and back, in just three hours. Mr Wang said the route of the three lines had yet to be decided, but that construction for the South East Asian line had already begun in the southern province of Yunnan and that Burma was about to begin building its link. China has offered to bankroll the Burmese line in exchange for the country’s rich reserves of lithium, a metal widely used in batteries. Currently, the only rail line that links China to South East Asia is an antiquated track built by the French in Vietnam a century ago. The Asian Development Bank has recently agreed a second ?27 million loan as part of the ?93 reconstruction of Cambodia’s network, which should finish by 2013. The cost of the lines from Cambodia to Singapore and then from Vietnam to China could be roughly ?400 million. “We have also already carried out the prospecting and survey work for the European network, and Central and Eastern European countries are keen for us to start,” Mr Wang said. “The Northern network will be the third one to start, although China and Russia have already agreed on a high-speed line across Siberia, where one million Chinese already live.” One stumbling block is China’s desire for the high-speed tracks to run on the same gauge as China’s domestic network. Vietnam has agreed to change its standard gauge, but other countries are still in negotiations. “From our point of view, the biggest issue is money,” said Mr Wang. “We will use government money and bank loans, but the railways may also raise financing from the private sector and also from the host countries. We would actually prefer the other countries to pay in natural resources rather than make their own capital investment.” As for passengers, Mr Wang predicted that in a decade’s time, visa restrictions on travel through Asia “will be further lifted”.
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