This is an overview of Southeast Asia railway projects under construction or that have been in the news over the last year. Projects that are planned but haven’t made any progress over the last year are not mentioned. There is an ongoing list of future projects on the railways page.
This list is for national railways, so it leaves out urban rail transit systems. There will be another post that gives a summary of urban transit railways.
Cambodia’s railway network comprises a line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and from Phnom Penh to Poipet. There are no new lines under construction, but the biggest change will be cross-border passenger trains from Thailand. The railway to Thailand has already been restored, so now it’s down to border checkpoints and cross-border transport agreements for passenger services. The Vishnu Roundabout in Poipet will be rebuilt to allow cross-border trains.
[Vishnu Roundabout Poipet (source).]
Earlier in 2022, Prime Minister Hun Sen made comments about upgrading the existing railway to a high-speed system. It’s worth mentioning that the phrase “high-speed railway” is loosely used in Southeast Asia. A high-speed railway is usually defined as having a speed of over 200km/h or 250km/h (definitions vary).
The proposed Phnom Penh to Bavet railway on the Cambodia-Vietnam border was also brought up again. This would form part of the Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City railway.
A rail link from Cambodia to Laos was also brought tup this year, though none of the news reports mentions the route. It could be be that freight is send via Thailand, or it could be the old plan for a line from Cambodia to Southern Laso.
Indonesia is currently building a high-speed railway from Jakarta to Bundung, and it is expected to be ready by June 2023. The railway is being built in partnership with China, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo will accompany Xi Jinping on a test ride during the week of the G20 meeting in Bali.
This will be the first high-speed railway in Southeast Asia, with a top speed of 350km/h. The line will be extended to Surabaya in the future.
[Indonesian President Joko Widodo stands beside a high-speed train (photo).]
Another new railway that isn’t getting as much attention is the Trans-Sulawesi Railway. This railway will connect Makassar to Manado over 1,600 kilometres on standard gauge railway. Makassar-Parepare will be the first section to open (about 100km in length), and it was reported that President Jokowi will inaugurate this section at the end of October 2022.
Sulawesi Kini Punya Kereta Api
— Hunter jagar (@Hunterjagar3) October 13, 2022
[Laos-China Railway at Luang Prabang.]
Laos has joined the railway club of Southeast Asia with the Laos-China Railway (as it is officially known). Technically there was a railway in Laos with the Nong Khai – Thanaleng line shuttling passengers over the Mekong from Thailand. The Laos-China Railway opened in December 2021, making it the first inter-city railway in Laos. The line goes from Boten on the Laos-China border to Vientiane. And for now, Laos has the fastest railway in Southeast Asia (words I never thought I would be typing).
The railway has been a success from the start, with tickets selling out almost daily, even with China being closed. This came at a massive cost though, especially in proportion to the size of the Laos economy.
Laos has now set its sites on another railway from Vientiane to Vung Ang. Vung where, I hear you ask? Vung Ang is in Vietnam, and it is the closest seaport to landlocked Laos. Vietnam has allowed Laos to take a majority stake in the port of 60%, partly as a way to keep Laos in their orbit.
The longest railway under construction in Southeast Asia is the East Coast Rail Link in Peninsula Malaysia. The ECRL is a 665km double-track standard-gauge electric railway from Port Klang on the Straits of Malacca to Kota Bharu on the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia. The project was more than 30% completed in July 2022, and it is estimated to commence operation by 2027.
The Gemas-Johor Baru double tracking and electrification project continues. In June 2020 it was estimated that it would be completed by October 2022, so that deadline will be missed. Once it is completed it will mean there will be faster trains from KL to JB (like the services to Penang).
This project will complete the double tracking of the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, enabling the ETS (Electric Train Service) to run from Padang Besar to Johor Bahru.
As for Borneo Malaysia, once again the states of Sabah and Sarawak have been overlooked. The government said that there is no plan for a feasibility study for a Sarawak-Sabah-Kalimantan rail network.
The most ambitious/outrageous proposal of the last year would have to be the proposal by the Melaka government for a rail tunnel to Sumatra.
The Philippines has been making more progress with the urban railways of Manila than anywhere else in the country (which will be featured in the upcoming metro report). One of the lines under construction is the North–South Commuter Railway. This is line of 147 km will form part of the Metro Manilas urban railway system.
Continuing from the North-South Commuter Railway will be the PNR South Long Haul, which is a 565 km reconstruction of the PNR South Main Line of South Luzon. A consortium of Chinese railway companies signed a contract for construction at the start of 2022.
[PNR South Long Haul via Wikimedia.]
One of the biggest disappoints of this Southeast Asia report is the lack of progress with the Mindanao Railway. When Duterte became president in 2016 there was some optimism that he – a Mindanaoan himself – would make this a legacy project. While it would have been overly optimistic to expect the entire line to be completed, there was an expectation that at least part of it would be operating by the time he left office in 2022. Alas, there is not a single kilometre of rideable railway in Mindanao.
The Panay Railway proposal has continued to be debated throughout the year.
The Singapore government released a statement that they are “willing to discuss any new proposal for a Kuala Lumpur – Singapore high-speed rail from Malaysia in good faith, starting from a clean slate.”
Thailand is forging ahead with a mix of new projects and double-tracking current single-line railways.
The Bangkok – Nong Khai high-spee railway is underway with the first section from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima expected to be ready by 2026. This is a standard gauge high-speed railway that will link up with the Laos-China Railway in Vientiane.
In addition to the Bangkok – Nong Khai high-speed railway, the State Railway of Thailand is also double-tracking the current metre-gauge railway along the same route. This bothers me, and I have already written about the mixed-gauge mess of Thailand’s railways.
There are some new lines in the north and northeast that are in the early stages of construction. A new line to Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong (on the Thai-Laos border) is being branched off the Chiang Mai line at Den Chai.
Another new line will branch off the Northeast line from Ban Phai to Mukdahan and Nakhon Phanom. This will connect provinces in the furthest reaches of Isaan to the rail network, and it will form part of the East-West Economic Corridor Railway.
One of the most unique projects that is happening anywhere in the world is the Bangkok 3 Airports High-Speed Railway. This standard-gauge railway will connect Don Muang Airport and Suvarnabhumi Airport with U-Tapao Airport in Rayong Province (also known as the airport for Pattaya). This is unique because there is no precedent anywhere of a direct railway service connecting three airports for one city. The section between Suvarnabhumi and U-Tapao will be able to reach speeds of 250 km/h, thus truly earning its high-speed title.
To the south, the double-tracking of the single-track metre-gauge network continues, with the Bangkok to Hua Hin section expected to be ready by 2023. This section will be using refurbished train sets that were donated by Japan.
[New station at Hua Hin.]
Hua Hin will be one of the destinations served by the donated Japanese trains that have been refurbished for use by the SRT.
Vietnam is the under-achiever for railways in Southeast Asia, with no new railways under construction. Around this time year the government announced it plans to develop nine new railways with a total length of nearly 2,400 kilometers by 2030. None of those 2,400 kilometres of rail has begun.
The biggest railway news story of the year has been the closure of “Train Street”. This is an alley in Hanoi that shares the road with the train line. There are cafes on either side that let people watch trains squeeze through. This only became famous in the last few years, and this dysfunctional infrastructure shouldn’t be a tourist attraction.
[Hanoi Train Street, now closed to tourists.]
The biggest project under consideration in Vietnam is the North-South Express railway. The proposal will upgrade the current North-South line from a single-tracked meter-gauge railway to a double-tracked standard-gauge railway.
This railway was first proposed in 2007, and it has been cancelled, revived, and put on hold throughout this time. In 2022 the Ministry of Transport said it will submit to the Politburo in September for consideration the construction of the North-South express rail link,
If this goes ahead it will be the biggest railway project in Southeast Asia in terms of length and cost. The details aren’t settled on yet, such as if it’s high-speed or semi-high-speed. I have written a post that compares the travel times depending on the speed of the train. In my opinion, Vietnam would be better suited to a semi-high-speed railway (about 200km/h) rather than a high-speed railway (350km/h). The semi-high-speed would vastly improve travel times between most cities of coastal Vietnam while being cheaper to build than the high-speed option.
Another project that has been discussed again this year is the Mekong Delta railway, linking HCMC to Can Tho. There is also the planned railway from Bien Hoa (outside of HCMC) to the port city of Vung Tau.