China could beat Japan on bullet train projects in Southeast Asia

By Chu Daye Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/8 19:43:39

Railway rivals

Following news that Thailand and Malaysia are set to begin talks on the construction of a 1,500-kilometer high-speed railway (HSR) linking Bangkok in Thailand and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Chinese experts said that Chinese HSRs have more merits than their Japanese competitor - called shinkansen. The Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur railway will be a new addition to the 3,900-kilometer pan-Asia railway network that is already taking shape. Chinese experts said it makes more sense for customers to choose a Chinese solution, as owning two systems will backfire in terms of maintenance.

A high-speed train enters a railway station in Luoyang, Central China's Henan Province, in September 2016. Photo: CFP

A high-speed train enters a railway station in Luoyang, Central China's Henan Province, in September 2016. Photo: CFP

Graphics: GT

Graphics: GT

Thailand and Malaysia are set to start talks on the construction of a high-speed railway (HSR) between their capitals, Japanese media reported on Monday.

Arkhom Termpittayapaisiht, Thailand's transport minister, said discussions will cover which purveyors of high-speed rail expertise will be involved in the project, according to a report in the Nikkei Asian Review. They could be "China or Japan" or "China and Japan," though the Thai minister said Malaysia seems to favor China.

China will jump at the chance if Thailand and Malaysia ask for help with the planned HSR project, the report said. Japan is also eager, setting the stage for a battle between the two countries.

The pan-Asia railway network is tied into China's "One Belt and One Road" (B&R) initiative. Formally called the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the B&R initiative was proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 to boost connectivity and trade among Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The pan-Asia railway's long-term goal is to allow trains to run to Singapore from Kunming, capital of Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

China's interests

Experts contacted by the Global Times took the news in stride, believing that the HSR project between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is more deserving of attention. They also said that the Chinese railway export package is better than Japan's, which is also good.

"Speaking for myself, I think China should be interested, as the China-Laos railway, the Laos-Thailand railway, and the Thailand-Malaysia railway are all part of the pan-Asia railway network," said Huang Ningshu, vice director of the China-Laos Railway Project. The 417.9-kilometer-railway connects Kunming with Vientiane, capital of Laos.

China will be duly interested in the latest news about the Thailand-Malaysia railway, but its focus will remain on the Singapore-Malaysia railway, which is in a far more advanced stage of development, said Sun Zhang, a railway expert and professor at Shanghai-based Tongji University.

In December 2016, Malaysia and Singapore formalized the details on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR project. The countries will solicit two international tenders by the end of 2017.

Regarding the Thailand-Malaysia railway, Sun said that Thailand, as the potential buyer, has the right to shop around.

Given that customer country will try to play China and Japan against each other in tit-for-tat competition to get the best deal, it behooves the Chinese side to study Southeast Asian customers' needs more carefully and more convincingly demonstrate its advantages, noted Sun.

"For the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur HSR, it has to compete with a mature commercial aviation market that has as many as 45 flights a day between the two cities," Sun told the Global Times on Tuesday.

"So the HSR in this section of the pan-Asia railway has to run at a speed of 350 kilometers per hour to be competitive. Faster trains cost more to operate, so we need to show our customer that we can deliver that speed at a reasonable cost," Sun said.

Sun said Japan will find it difficult to do so.

On other sections, like the Thailand-Malaysia railway, speed is less of an issue because there are not as many flights between the two countries. Sun said the managers of the project will like a low-cost package for a railway line that runs at 250 kilometers per hour.

"We needs to study these matters thoroughly to make sure that what we offer is accurately aligned with our customer's need," Sun said.

Japan's shinkansen bullet train technology is already running in the island of Taiwan, and Japan has also signed deals in India and Thailand.

In 2015, however, Japan lost out to China for the Jakarta-Bandung HSR project in Indonesia.

Currently Thailand is planning a shinkansen project between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and a Sino-Thai HSR project linking the Laotian border.

Buyer's interests

For Thailand, a country with somewhat limited finances, having its HSR to be provided by two countries with two different systems means it has to be prepared to pay extra for future maintenance, such as two sets of spare parts, repair services and training for employees, Sun said.

Such maintenance stretches a long time span because it has to cover the entire life span of the purchased products, Sun claimed.

That is 30 years for the rolling stock, 60 years for the railway bridges and 100 years for tunnels, noted Sun.

Experts also pointed out that Japan, being a cluster of islands of limited size, does not have China's experience at either operating a huge HSR network or building in complex terrain such as rain forest. China's high-speed trains have proved themselves in its southwestern provinces, which share a similar geography with Southeast Asia.

China built the world's largest high-speed rail network in less than a decade.

As of the end of 2016, China operated 20,000 kilometers of HSR track, or 65 percent of the world's total, according to media reports.

"China operates its HSRs across six climate zones and five time zones. Japan has no such experience," said Jia Limin, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University.

Jia, a leading expert in HSRs, briefed Chinese President Xi Jinping on the technological strengths of Chinese HSRs in June 2016, according to media reports.

"As a late starter, China's high-speed railways utilize newer and more advanced technologies," Jia told the Global Times on Tuesday. "The Chinese technologies also come from a more diversified background, having absorbed both European and Japanese technologies. More importantly, these technologies were proven in mass application, whereas many of Japan's newest technologies have not been proven in actual use."

Experts said the world is big enough for China and Japan to both export their HSR technologies. But any country that builds two HSR systems, one Chinese and one Japanese, will face practical problems.

Unlike China, Japan cannot be physically connected to these countries once the railway is built, denying its user of some practical functions from the connectivity, Sun said.

"When rolling stock needs an upgrade - which they will need to do in their long life cycle - they can be actually driven back to China into a Chinese plant for a speedy upgrade at a reasonable cost," noted Sun. "If the rolling stock is made in Japan, however, the customer country has to do the upgrade on its own in plants that won't need to be built if they take the Chinese option."


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