When Hong Kong’s impressive High-Speed Railway Station opened on the Kowloon West waterfront in late September 2018, many mainland Chinese cities instantaneously became accessible by rail within a day.
It is now possible to leave the city at noon and arrive in Kunming, capital of southwest Yunnan Province, for dinner following a fascinating seven-hour journey across four provinces and autonomous regions of astonishing ethnic and geographic diversity.
Kunming, a major city close to China’s frontiers with its Southeast Asian neighbours, has long played a role in regional trade. For centuries, it and smaller cities in its orbit, notably Dali, were eastern terminuses on the Ancient Tea Horse Road that linked what is today Myanmar, India, Tibet and beyond. Valuable goods (Chinese tea, silk and medicinal herbs) and ideas were traded back and forth.
Today, Kunming is building a new role in modern transport and trade as the northern terminus of the Kunming–Singapore railway (or Pan-Asia railway network as it is often referred to). This idea is not new, having originated with colonial Britain and France who wanted to link southwest China with Indochina and Malaysia. But the conflicts of the last century left many of the projects unfinished.
The proposed new network consists of three main routes from Kunming to Bangkok – the eastern route via Vietnam and Cambodia; the central route via Laos, and the western route via Myanmar. The southern half of the network from Bangkok to Singapore has been in operation for some time, although a high-speed line has been proposed.
A Japanese-supported high-speed rail project in Vietnam was dropped in 2010 after costs blew out. However, given the recent robust performance of the Vietnamese economy, the project is due to be discussed again at this year’s communist party congress.
There are barriers to developing a Pan Asian rail network as the width or gauge of the railway varies from country-to-country. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia are using the metre gauge (1000mm), while China and Singapore use the standard gauge (1435 mm).
Meanwhile, the ancient trading centre of Xi’an has become an inland hub for the Chang’an rail freight route, which has connected western China to the outside world over the past five years, expanding trade into Central Asia and Europe.
In the first quarter of 2018, 182 freight trains completed journeys on the route. That’s seven times the number during the same period in 2017. Trains carried mechanical equipment, spare parts and accessories, raw building materials, electronics, clothing and shoes to cities as far away as Hamburg, Budapest and Moscow.
Going the other way were imports of grain and oil from Kazakhstan, cotton yarn from Uzbekistan and wood from Russia, according to Liu Wei at the Xi’an International Trade and Logistics Park.
Potentially, with the high-speed rail line already in place between Kunming and Xi’an, rail freight from ASEAN countries will be able to transit through China to markets in Central Asia and Europe.