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Barun Roy: A great new railway bazaar

New nations in Asia, South America and Africa are discovering the attractions of speedier travel as developmental pressures grow

Barun Roy 

Barun Roy

A great new railway bazaar is shaping up around the world with high-speed railways as its central point of trade. While all the traditional high-speed nations - Japan, where it all began way back in 1964, China, now its foremost champion, South Korea, and countries in Europe such as France, Germany, and the UK - are expanding their networks, new nations in Asia, South America, and even Africa, are getting hooked to the idea of speedier travel as their economic needs and developmental pressures grow.

Australia, for example, is now convinced that high-speed railway would revolutionise travel and be an economic game-changer. It's now working on a 1,799-km link along its eastern seaboard, connecting Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, and Brisbane, with a possible extension to Adelaide, and hopes it could be completed by 2025. In the Mekong sub-region of Southeast Asia, a Yunnan to Singapore high-speed link has been in the works for some time, spanning Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia. In the middle east, the Gulf Cooperation Council is planning a high-speed railway to connect all the six states in the region, from Kuwait City in the north to Muscat in the east.

Despite funding delays, Venezuela hasn't abandoned its $7.6-billion project to link up its cities of Tinaco and Anaco. Brazil has decided to go high-speed as well. In Africa, Morocco boasts the continent's first high-speed railway network, Nigeria has a 1,385-km line in mind, and links are planned from the Kenyan port city of Mombasa to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. Turkey plans to construct a 10,000-km network by 2023.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, in just three years between January 2008 and January 2011, the total operational high-speed fleet in the world increased from 1,737 train sets to 2,517, mostly in France, China, Japan, Germany and Spain. By the end of this year, in the institute's reckoning, the global fleet is expected to reach more than 3,700 units. The International Union of Railways describes the likely development of high-speed railways as "extremely spectacular," and expects new dedicated high-speed lines, on a kilometre basis, to multiply by four in the next 15 years.

One country that welcomes this development and is trying to help it along is China. Having built up a credible domestic network of high-speed railways in just the last six years, the government is now paying serious attention to sell its expertise abroad. Having opened its first track-based high-speed line in August 2008, connecting Beijing with the neighbouring port city of Tianjin, China has gone on to build the world's longest high-speed railway from Beijing to Guangzhou. The July 2011 accident near Wenzhou, which killed 40 people, is now a fading memory. It's now expected that China's domestic network would reach 19,000 km of ultra high-speed and 40,000 km of total high-speed railways by 2015.

China's first foray into the global high-speed railway market was in 2009, when it bagged a deal, along with a group of partners, to build a 449.2-km link between Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. That project, to cost some $12 billion, is on course for a December 2015 opening, with trains running at 320 km per hour. The kingdom is in the middle of a massive public transport modernisation effort, involving a metro network for Riyadh that could be 150 years ahead of its time. A second high-speed railway is being planned to connect Riyadh and the Gulf port of Dammam.

Since then, China has been selling the high-speed rail idea very actively at various levels, and the government encourages domestic railway builders to promote wider international adoption of Chinese high-speed railway technology. Chinese railway engineers are at work in countries such as Thailand, Laos, Russia, the middle east, and now Africa, where it is involved in both the Nigerian and Kenya-Mombasa projects. The China Railway Group, one of the country's two main railway builders - the other being the China Railway Construction Corporation - hopes to triple its international orders by 2016, up from $7 billion in 2013.

China's global confidence obviously stems from the technology that it has acquired over the last decade from foreign companies scrambling to enter the Chinese market. The government had made it mandatory that these companies transfer part of their technologies to China and has used that leverage to develop its own, which it claims is cheaper than what its competitors are able to offer. It's this cheaper cost - about $25 million per km, almost half the going rate - that seems to be winning new converts to the high-speed railway idea.

What's more, China is even willing to be partners where countries have funding problems. During a visit to eastern Europe last November, Premier Li Keqiang offered to partner with Serbia and Hungary to build a high-speed link between their capitals and made a similar offer to build a line in Romania.

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First Published: Wed, June 11 2014. 21:48 IST