The future for high speed rail in SE Asia is looking bright – Kunming to Bangkok via Laos anyone?

The Great Wall of China

We’ve just signed off on a new Railway Adventures tour scheduled to run in May 2025 – Kunming to Bangkok via Laos – and it’s going to be a cracker of an adventure, combining local trains with the new high-speed railways in China, including the newly built Laos-China Railway.  Amongst other brilliant experiences, you’ll spend time in gorgeous Luang Prabang, and revel in a fabulous stay in the famed InterContinental Train Resort in Khao Yai. 

High-speed train from Kunming, China to Luang Prabang, Laos

To celebrate this tour, we thought you might be interested in a potted history of the railways in this part of the world and the commitment to a future of high speed rail – something we here in Australia still can’t seem to get our heads around!

When did trains start in this part of the world?

The history of railways in Southeast Asia traces back to the late 19th century when British, Dutch and French colonial powers began establishing rail networks to facilitate transportation of goods and people across the region. 

The first railway in Southeast Asia was constructed in British Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) in the 19th century. The line between Taiping and Port Weld, Perak, opened in 1885, primarily to transport tin ore. The British continued to expand the network, connecting major cities like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and by the early 20th century, the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR) was established, serving as a crucial mode of transportation for both passengers and cargo.

Malaysian Jungle Railway

Meanwhile, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the Dutch were busy developing railway lines in Java, Sumatra, and other islands.  The first line, connecting Semarang and Tanggung, opened in Java in 1867, mainly for transporting agricultural products like sugar and coffee.  

In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the French got to work in the late 19th century, primarily in Vietnam, first connecting Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and Mytho (now Vĩnh Long), in 1881. It later extended northward to Hanoi.  Around the same time, the first line in Thailand, between Bangkok and Ayutthaya, opened in 1893.

Vientiane to Bangkok Express

The British and French colonial empires, inspired by Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway, first proposed building a railway from Kunming in China to Singapore in 1900, with the idea of linking the railways they had already built in southwest China, French Indochina and British Malaya, but international conflicts in the 20th century kept regional railways fragmented, so it never happened. However, there was a railway built during one of these conflicts – by the Japanese Imperial Army. The Thai–Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, is a 415 km railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma (now Myanmar) built from 1940 to 1943 by Japanese held prisoners of war.

Burma Railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand
So, what has changed?

The Kunming to Singapore idea has been revived, with over twenty Asian and Eurasian countries signing the Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement in 2006, which incorporates the Kunming–Singapore railway into the Trans-Asian Railway Network.  The network consists of three main routes from Kunming, China to Bangkok, Thailand – the Eastern route via Vietnam and Cambodia, the Central route via Laos, and the Western route via Myanmar. The idea is to get these networks connected. 

The southern half of the network, from Bangkok to Singapore, has been operational since 1918 when the southern line of the Thailand railway system was connected with British Malaya’s west coast line.  But if you actually want to travel by train between these two cities, it’s a slow journey travelling on five different trains,and taking 48 hours! 

The central route opened in December 2021, with the opening of the Laos-China Railway – the Chinese built Yuxi–Mohan railway on the China side, and the Boten–Vientiane railway, a collaborative project between the Chinese and Laos governments, on the Laos side. While these trains can already run at 200km/ph, there are active plans for high-speed railway constructions across the region.

Enter China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative

In 2000, only 24 years ago, China had no high-speed railways and slow and uncomfortable trains plodded across the country, with low average speeds making journeys a test of travel endurance. Now, the country accounts for more than two-thirds of the world’s total high-speed railway networks and is considered a world leader in this space. Much like Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen in the 1960s, these fast trains are a symbol of the country’s economic power, political influence, rapid modernization, growing technological prowess and increasing prosperity.

The CRH high-speed train, China

When it comes to building high speed rail lines, China quite simply gets the job done – and fast – and they’ve now turned their attention to projects further afield.  The AUD $9 billion Laos-China Railway in Laos is just a taste of what’s to come.  

China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative proposes high-speed train services connecting all the major cities in SE Asia and discussions are ongoing with the Malaysian, Thai, Myanmar, Cambodian and Laos government to achieve the goal.  

In March 2024, the Malaysian and Singaporean governments reviewed various proposals to build a high-speed railway connecting Kuala Lumpur to Singapore in the first instance, with a plan to extend the rail line north to the Thai border. The government of Thailand has also committed to a railway expansion plan and has already signed contracts with Chinese state-owned firms for civil engineering works.  The first phase is a high-speed rail line from Bangkok to Vientiane to link up with Laos-China Railway, the existing Chinese-built high-speed track from Vientiane to Kunming. The next phase could be the fast rail link from Bangkok to the Malaysian border.

What’s next?

With all the talks, plans and money lending going on, we can only imagine what the future of high speed rail in Southeast Asia will look like. It’s entirely possible that by 2032 you’ll be able to travel from Singapore to Bangkok in under ten hours, continue on to Laos, and finish in Kunming, all by high speed train.

And here’s a mind blow for you – when (if) Russia reopens, perhaps you’ll be able to travel continuously by train from Singapore to Lisbon in Portugal via China, Mongolia and Russia, covering an enormous 18,800 kms! 

If this tsunami of rail activity in Southeast Asia intrigues you, have a look at some of our tours  that will get you there to see it – Cambodia, Vietnam, Borneo, Java, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Laos – where would you like to go?.  

Railway Adventures tours are more than just a holiday, it is a unique way to experience the world. By train you are completely immersed in culture and adventure, exploring the most scenic corners of the world in the comfort of a luxury train. Whether you are an experienced traveller or just beginning to explore this wonderful world, Railway Adventures has something for everyone. Transform your holiday into the most unforgettable adventure of a lifetime with Railway Adventures.

Call 1300 800 977 or email us at [email protected] to request a Catalogue for all our tours in 2024 or visit our website.

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