South East Asia seeks high-speed railways

Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 16:03

The Japanese high speed train Shinkansen.— VNS Photo Nguyen Manh Ha

By Akio Oikawa and Takahiro Tsujimoto

Selling Japan's Shinkansen technology was one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's key goals at the special summit meeting between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this past weekend, but there are a number of potential obstacles in the way.

Various Southeast Asian countries are planning to build railway networks, and Japan has viewed this trend as a major business opportunity. However, competition is intensifying with China, South Korea and European countries also seeking a piece of the market. Some of the plans also remain uncertain in terms of their feasibility.

"Japan's high-speed railway system boasts a high level of safety," Abe said during a meeting with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan on Sunday.

On Thursday, Abe also told his Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak: "If the Shinkansen is introduced [to Malaysia], it could become a symbol of the two countries' cooperation. Our nation wants to cooperate in solidarity."

Bidding for high-speed railway projects is expected to be carried out in Thailand and Malaysia next year. The four envisaged Thai railway routes will link Bangkok to four major cities, including Chiang Mai. The Malaysian and Singapore governments aim to build an about 300-kilometre railway network that would allow passengers to travel between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in just 90 minutes by the end of 2020.

In Indonesia, two railway lines totalling about 730 kilometres are being planned. One will operate between Jakarta and Bandung, a western city of the Java island, and another between the Indonesian capital and the eastern city of Surabaya.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency has been commissioned to carry out a feasibility study on the Jakarta-Bandung line. It is scheduled to start estimating specific operating costs, passenger demand and profitability of the line next year.

However, Japan is facing fierce competition as its rivals gear up their sales promotions.

In October, China held an event to promote its high-speed railway technology in Bangkok. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reportedly told Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that China's railway technology is safe and trustworthy. Beijing reportedly proposed that the Thai government pay part of the expenses for the railway project in rice from Thailand's surplus stores of rice.

Meanwhile, France and Germany appear to be keen on Malaysia's railway plan, while Indonesia is apparently being courted by France and South Korea.

Japan has been commissioned to carry out the on-site study in Indonesia, but this does not guarantee Japan's winning of the order. "We can't say Japan's leading," an official of Japan's Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry said.

It also remains uncertain whether these Southeast Asian countries can realize their plans, which require massive funding.

In 2006, Vietnam drew up a railway project linking Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and Japan's Shinkansen technology was supposed to be used, but the project sparked criticism as its construction cost amounted to about US$56 billion—about triple the national budget. The plan was then scaled down in March with a system involving trains at speeds below 200 kph. Bidding for the project will be conducted again. — The Yomiuri Shimbun

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