Biting the Bullet at 250km/h on China’s Silk Road


This is not for the high flier. But what if high-speed trains made you feel like one? Imagine zipping down from Shanghai to mainland China’s south-western gateway of Kunming in about 10 hours (currently it takes 36 hours), sipping green tea or munching on a bao and then looping dreamily through the lush environs of India-China. You would wind past mountains, paddy fields, brooks and skirt homes through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, finally calling it a day in plush Singapore. And what if you had a duty-free zone around these South East Asian halts? Exotic travel combined with ease of doing business and some shopping on the sly?

The plan to build a rail line between Kunming and Singapore was first proposed by colonial authorities over a century ago and a grand trans-Asian rail accord was signed by nearly 20 Asian countries in 2006. China, now battling domestic slowdown and saturation, is using its homegrown high-speed railways to translate this once utopian dream into reality.

The project implications are a free, shared economic zone with multi-modal connectivity, common infrastructure, regional hubs, mutual gains and need we say, establishing China’s supremacy in the context of economic imperialism of the Orient. The once backward Yunnan province is opening up to South East and South Asia, acting as a bridgehead for projects and economic partnerships with neighbours whereby China benefits by reaping the harvest of investing its funds and technological knowhow and availing the best of the theory of comparative advantages.

China’s new pivot of development is couched in the romantic idea of the revival of the Silk Road, both overland and maritime, the historical conduit which helped it command world trade. Today’s Silk Road is not about merchant caravans or boats but about high-speed railways. Kunming will be linked to eight railway lines with the rest of China and four with neighbouring countries. The hub for this will be the Kunming South Railway Station, a sprawling steel edifice straddling the Longtan Mountains. Girders and heavy duty cranes lord over cavernous bellies where tracks will be laid and the home-grown bullet trains will radiate in all directions by 2016.

The largest high-speed rail station under construction in south-west China (it has already consumed 1.6 billion Yuan, roughly 50 per cent of the total estimate) is expected to have a daily run of 1,28,000 people. In rush hour, the passenger flow may reach 3,00,000 people. The estimated annual capacity is expected to be 46.93 million in the long run.

Its hub and spoke nature can be best understood with a miniature model that condenses all the activity by the army of yellow-capped men outside. The facade resembles a peacock spreading its coat and tail, the bird now a brand ambassador for a rapidly modernising Yunnan province.

The station itself is three-tiered: three ground floors, the departure floor for outbound passengers wishing to access other urban transport like buses, cabs and subways and the platform floor with 30 train arrival-departure tracks and 30 platforms. If transiting, you have to go underground. Side station buildings in the east and west sell tickets and offer related services. The architecture astutely incorporates features of ASEAN countries and symbolises harmonious ethnic groups, a sign of cultural contiguity that China is using to build goodwill for the new Silk Road.

The station is being built on a bridge, the transfer and transportation work are under it and all are seamlessly integrated, at once practical, economical and energy-saving. Running at 250 kph, the high-speed trains are expected to transform the face of Yunnan by bringing its suburbs together, connecting it to the prosperous north and spearheading a corridor to South East Asian countries, Thailand having already agreed to sharing the link.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is betting big on Kunming as the ideological, strategic and economic fountainhead of the region, personally supervising operations at the Kunming South Station earlier this year and emphasising the need for closer connectivity between the train and Metro services. In one stroke, the rail corridor will improve economic productivity and competitiveness with increased capacity and linking labour markets. More passengers in high-speed lines means older tracks will be free to carry more freight.

Moreover, the high-speed rail project, even as joint ventures with other countries, will create jobs and drive up demand for construction, steel and cement industries. It will fuel the demand for new cities along the way and willy-nilly ensure that lesser neighbours, who are not yet fascinated by a Chinese takeover of infrastructure and its geopolitical implications, gravitate towards it. As for India, the railway gives China a faster access to the Indian Ocean region.

Hoping to accelerate China’s opening up to South East and South Asia, the Kunming Railway Container Centre has also been upgraded over the last five years to become a modern railway terminal yard with super logistics management, smart storage, increased capacities and digitised operations. The total freight volume from this centre is 1.6 million TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit).

The expansion of the high-speed rail network has clearly elevated China into a technology-lender, something that India is accessing in its chase to build its own efficient, multi-functional network. Chinese train-makers have indigenised imported technologies quickly, localised production processes and even begun to compete with foreign suppliers. Since the launch of the first Beijing-Tianjin high-speed rail in 2008, China’s high-speed rail system has become the largest and the fastest in the world.

The concept of the Kunming-Singapore Railway originated with the British and French imperialists, who sought to link the railways they had built in south-west China, Indochina and Malaya, but was fragmented by 20th century politics. The idea was revived in October 2006 when 18 Asian and Eurasian countries signed the Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement, which designates the Kunming-Singapore Railway as one of the key hubs. The ideal network, if it sees the light of day, could consist 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.

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Founded by two travel and technology professionals with years of experience in Asia, Representasia specialises in sales & marketing representation throughout Southeast Asia for travel/hospitality technology providers and travel-related startups, as well as providing marketing consultancy services for hotels and travel businesses in the region.

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