Current and proposed railways of Southeast Asia – every line mapped
In 2016 I compiled every current and proposed railway in Southeast Asia and created the Future Southeast Asia Railway Map, which depicted all current and proposed railways as a subway map.
[Future Southeast Asia Railway Map – 2016 version (Click for larger image).]
I’ve since been keeping a tab on news of any proposed railway, including any new proposals or an old one that has begun construction. I also had many requests of a map to visually represent current and proposed railways on one map.
I now present the current and proposed railways of Southeast Asia (2017 edition).
The black lines on the map represent railways that are currently operating, while the red lines are proposed lines. As with the subway map, proposed can mean anything from lines currently under construction, in feasibility study stage, or an on-the-record election promise from a pork-barrelling politician.
The full details of current railways can be found on the guide to train travel in Southeast Asia.
If you are looking to buy train tickets in Southeast Asia try 12Go Asia.
International Train Services In Southeast Asia
In many respects the past year was a step backwards for Southeast Asia railways, with a decrease in international services. The Bangkok to Butterworth train was discontinued this year, with trains now stopping on the border at Padang Besar. This is on top of the Malaysian Railways overnight service from Kuala Lumpur to Hatyai that was cancelled in 2016.
Most of the international railways have been reduced to cross-border shuttles, with the Hanoi-Nanning-Beijing train being the only international service of note. Considering the population of the region and amount of land borders on mainland Southeast Asia, this is a sorry state.
There is a grand total of five international train services (not counting the private Eastern & Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore).
Johor Bahru (Malaysia) – Woodlands (Singapore): A cross-border shuttle that replaced the KL-Singapore train.
Padang Besar (Malaysia) – Hat Yai (Thailand): Twice-daily shuttle train.
Padang Besar (Malaysia) – Bangkok (Thailand): A daily train from Bangkok to the Malaysian border station.
Thanaleng (Laos) – Nong Khai (Thailand): A cross-border shuttle that connects to the Nong Khai – Bangkok service.
Hanoi (Vietnam) – Beijing (China): The Beijing-Nanning-Hanoi Through Train is the only intercity railway connecting two capitals.
It’s not surprising that the long distance trains have struggled to stay open, given the slow speeds and the abundance of low cost airlines in Southeast Asia. It will not be until new high speed rail services are operating that there will be a return to more international services.
It’s not all bad news though as there are some big projects underway, and some looking like they will finally start.
Most of the details of the proposed railways can be found on the subway map post. There I have bookmarked all the news reports of the railways, so you can see for yourself each proposal.
For this post I am featuring news items that have been published in the year since I published the first map. Consider this a “State Of The Southeast Asia Railways Address”.
I have news alerts and other interested people who send me news links on all of these projects. If you want to stay up to date or post news articles please join the Facebook Southeast Asia Railways group.
Nomadic Notes Proposed Railways
In addition to the officially proposed lines, I have made my own proposals that are glaring omissions. These only make up a fraction of the map, so most of what is mapped are official plans (and not just me drawing lines).
Last year I listed the following lines that would connect obvious lines, or would be useful extensions:
Pematangsiantar – Parapat/Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia)
Surat Thani Airport – Surat Thani (Thailand)
Surin (Thailand) – Samraong (Cambodia)
Nakhon Phanom (Thailand) – Thakhek (Laos)
Phan Thiet – Mui Ne (Vietnam)
This year the Lake Toba extension was officially proposed so I can take it off this list. I’ve now added a new line that would fill in a missing link:
Ranong (Thailand) – Myeik (Myanmar)
In the short term, this would open up tourism in the deep south of Myanmar. In the long term this would enable traffic from Singapore, Malaysia, and Southern Thailand to be routed through to Yangon rather than going via Bangkok.
Current And Proposed Railways Of Southeast Asia Map
The map and this report doesn’t include city metro and commuter trains within a city area, of which there is a lot going on in Southeast Asia.
Here is what has been happening with Southeast Asia railways over the past year.
There are no new lines or proposals to report this year. Like much of Southeast Asia, much of the news could be rehashed from last year. The main focus in Cambodia is establishing a service that will connect Phnom Penh to Bangkok.
The railway that will connect Thailand and Cambodia was supposed to open this year. It is now been scheduled to open next year, with a railway station in Poipet (on the Cambodian border) under construction.
The line from Poipet will travel to Sisophon, which is a junction for travel to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. From there it’s still a long way to go until the line to Phnom Penh is rehabilitated. One news outlet reports that the line will be ready by the magical date of 2020.
[Battambang train station.]
The famous Bamboo Railway (near Battambang) was set to be closed in October, in preparation for the line restoration to Phnom Penh. It has been threatened with closure for years, so maybe this is the year.
The most obvious domestic link of Phnom Penh to Siem Reap has been offered to be developed by Chinese companies, along with a link to the Vietnamese border.
Another Chinese-owned company is to conduct a feasibility study for a railway from Preah Vihear province through to Koh Kong province. This is for a planned iron and steel plant in Preah Vihear. The report remains vague as to what towns it will pass through, which is why I have kept the map with subway-style lines rather than trying to draw exact routes. It’s unclear if this would also double as a passenger railway, so I have included it as one. I have found a few other proposals that are purely mining lines which I left out pending further investigation.
The story of Southeast Asia’s railway rejuvenation can’t be told without mentioning China, who plan to connect Asia, Europe and Africa along land and sea routes. The New Silk Road, One Belt, One Road (OBOR), or the now preferred Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) includes Southeast Asia as part of this grand master plan. Railways from southern China will pass though Southeast Asia to seaports, saving days of shipping travel from eastern ports. In Maritime Southeast Asia, China is pledging money to build railways as a tool of soft power.
In China there are three routes that will radiate from Kunming in Yunnan Province, connecting to Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Construction of China’s longest rail tunnel is underway, which will eventually connect Kunming to Myanmar.
[Video from New China TV.]
Along with China I’ve been monitoring news of railways from India that may connect to Myanmar and onwards to the rest of Southeast Asia. There is a plan to build a railway from Imphal in India to Tamu in Myanmar. The India-Myanmar rail project has yet to be sanctioned so there will be no Dehli to Yangon service in the foreseeable future.
Same as last year, there are still only railways on two islands (Java and Sumatra). Things are moving along to expand the current network and build new railways. There are more than 3,200km of train tracks planned, with new railways in Batam, Bali, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, and West Papua.
[Image by straitstimes.com.]
The biggest island in Indonesia has the ongoing Trans-Sumatra railway project that will eventually travel the length of the island. The northern end of the line that will connect Medan and Aceh is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2019.
A Chinese investor has shown interest in a Medan-Lake Toba Railway. This would involve extending the current railway from Siantar to Parapat (the town on Lake Toba). I listed this railway on my 2016 map as a recommended railway extension. If Indonesia plan to create “10 new Balis”, then a railway to Lake Toba would make sense.
Further down the Trans-Sumatra, the Palembang-Betung-Jambi–Pekanbaru line is in the planning stage.
Java already has an established railway network (by Southeast Asian standards at least) so most of the work here involves upgrading to faster trains. The big project is converting the current Trans-Java service from Jakarta to Surabaya into a “semi-fast” rail link. The goal is to reduce the travel time from around 9 hours to 5 hours, making it competitive with air travel.
It appears that the government is courting China to build the railway, after agreeing that Japan could build it.
One of the biggest problems of developing a new railway is land acquisition. Java is the most populous island in the world, with over 145 million according to the 2015 census. Unlike China, which can just evict landowners as they please, clearing land in Indonesia is a much more difficult process.
In central Java there is a plan to connect the Solo and Yogyaakrta airports.
[Train passing through Yogyakarta.]
Of all the proposals in Southeast Asia, Bali still ranks as the most ridiculous. The previous plan had a line going around the coast and meeting at the proposed new airport that would be built in the sea (not a typo). Groundbreaking for that project was reported to be scheduled for August 28, 2017. That date came and went without a shovel being lifted. Now it is reported that the fate of the North Bali airport will be determined at end of 2017 (www.pwc.com/id/en/media-centre/infrastructure-news/july-2017/new-airport–the-fate-of-north-bali-to-be-determined-at-end-2017.html).
[Good luck finding space for a train line in Bali.]
This year Indonesia has offered the Bali railway project to China. This plan has a railway going through the island rather than around it, connecting Denpasar to Ubud and Singaraja. A feasibility study has been completed and construction is expected to start in 2018. Maybe if China are involved it will get done. They would probably have to get one of those fancy tunnelling machines like they are currently using in Southern China, as I can’t see any way that they could possibly clear land in Bali now.
They have been kicking the can down the road for so long about this one that I wouldn’t expect a railway, or new airport connected to a railway, anytime soon.
The first section of the long Trans-Sulawesi is under construction. The 146-km line from Makassar to Parepare forms the southern section of the 1,700-km line from Makassar, South Sulawesi to Manado, North Sulawesi. It is apparently due to open in 2018. If so that will give me a good excuse to go back to Makassar and visit some other parts of Indonesia.
In the north a Manado – Bitung railway line has been offered to investors.
There was an announcement of massive railway plans in Indonesian Borneo by President Jokowi. A 2,428KM railway will span North to South Kalimantan. Construction was announced to begin in 2019, starting with Balikpapan-Samarinda, Tanjung-Balikpapan, and Banjarmasin-Palangkaraya.
Related to this, an idea to move the capital from Jakarta to Borneo would have to include a comprehensive railway plan as well. I doubt the capital will move (even though it is sinking), but the railway plans seem to be getting closer to being started.
Russia plan to construct railways in East Kalimantan totally about 575km, which they expect to be completed by 2022. If you are dreaming of riding the rails through the jungles of Borneo, passing by pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys on the way, then you will be sorely disappointed. This railway will be used for transporting resources such as coal and crude palm oil. The railways will then be opened up for passenger operations after 5 years.
Meanwhile in West Papua, groundbreaking was due in 2017 for a railway that will connect Sorong City and Manokwari. Trains on the 390 km route would be able to travel at up to 250 kilometres per hour. This is the first stage of the 595 kilometre Trans Papua Railway that will traverse the north coast of West Papua, form Sorong to Jayapura. I would like to see this happen, if only because it would be embarrassing for the Australian government if there was a faster train in New Guinea than there is in Australia.
[Thanaleng – as of 2017 the only train station in Laos.]
Laos is one of the least developed nations in Southeast Asia, and as of 2017 it has just 3.5 kilometres of railway. Yet if all the proposed railways come to fruition, Laos is set to become the crossroads of mainland Southeast Asia
[Image by Vientiane Times.]
While many of the planned railways continue to be just plans, one of the biggest infrastructure projects in ASEAN is now underway. After years of delays the railway linking China to Thailand via Laos began construction in December, 2016.
The stats for this project are staggering. The railway is over 412km long, and over 62 percent consists of bridges and tunnels. It will make domestic travel in Laos much quicker, and open up new tourism and trade routes between the three countries.
It has not been without controversy. Land compensation has been an issue, and details are limited on the repayment terms of the loan, how many Laotian workers there will be, and the rights to land when it is finished. Even the Laotian government doesn’t know the exact number of Chinese workers in the country.
A double track electrified railway from Savannakhet to Lao Bao is still on the cards. This would form part of the east-west link that will travel to Vietnam. There was a ground-breaking ceremony held in January, 2014 for the Savannakhet to Lao Bao link, yet progress has been slow. It was expected to take four years, which would have had it opened in 2018. The right-of-way railway corridor posts of the planned 220 km railway project was completed in December, 2016. This is ready to begin construction, pending the Lao government’s approval.
There are some good images at Giant Rail Company Limited, which is the project management company for the Savannakhet to Lao Bao line.
[Projected image of Laos Railways by Giant Rail Company Limited.]
The website has images of what the stations might look like. This includes a Savannakhet that has been transformed from a dusty backwater to a provincial metropolis.
[Bangkok? No, the metropolis of Savannakhet. Image by GRCL.]
I say dusty backwater lovingly. Savannakhet has a languid charm about it, and if it has some more city amenities and trains to bangkok maybe I will retire here. If it does get trains to the capitals of surrounding countries it would be a good candidate to become the seat of the Greater Mekong Subregion.
[Colonial remnants in Savannakhet, Laos.]
A second link to Vietnam is still planned, which runs from Vientiane-Thakhek-Mu Gia. In Southern Laos a line has been considered to run to Pakse and on to Veunkham on the Cambodian border (near the 4000 Islands).
Another project to watch is the “Boloven Economic Zone” – a Sino-Laos new area in Southern Laos. The Bolaven Plateau is to the east of Pakse in Southern Laos. The Special Economic Zone will have an area five times the size of Hong Kong and will be built by a Chinese group. Mind you, this press release sounds like it’s making stuff up when it says that “with the opening of the old railway and the construction of the international airport, more and more Chinese people are traveling to Laos”. Huh?
The only old railway is at Don Khon in the 4000 Islands, which is not anywhere near the Bolaven Plateau and will never be restored as a functioning railway. I will be watching this SEZ story to see if there is a proposed railway from Pakse to the Plateau, and through to Vietnam. It’s challenging terrain (and with loads of UXO) but if the China-Laos-Thailand railway gets built then anything is possible, especially if Beijing want to keep spending their renminbi on exerting influence in the region.
There are two big railway projects are planned for Malaysia. The KL-Singapore High-Speed Rail is waiting to select a builder for the project, which should be done by December. Concept designs for the stations have been unveiled, with land acquisition for the project to begin in November.
[Malacca HSR Station.]
The station at Bandar Malaysia (in KL) would include the “world’s largest underground city”. With some big redevelopment projects underway, KL is on its way to fulfilling the vision of a modern industrialized nation as part of the Wawasan 2020 plan.
The other big project is the East Coast Rail Link, which began construction in August, 2017. This rail link is being built and funded by (surprise!) China. The line will travel from Port Klang to Kuantan Port, then up the east coast, which doesn’t have a railway. It’s being built on a standard gauge, avoiding the mistake of the new metre-gauge railway from KL to Padang Besar.
[East Coast Rail Link, image by straitstimes.com.]
While the ECRL will be beneficial for freight and passenger transport, there are concerns about the environmental impact, where the line will cut through protected forests.
There has been no progress on any sort of railway on the island of Penang or connection to the mainland.
Lonely Planet listed the region of Perak as one of the top places to visit in 2017. Ipoh (the capital of Perak) has experienced a renaissance over the last few years, and the amazing Ipoh station is looking to be renovated. Plans include a big underground mall (though not the scale of KL) and a rail connection to Lumut for Pangkor Island.
[Ipoh train station.]
In Malaysian Borneo, there is a study to extend railway service east from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan and Kudat.
Sarawak is the only state without a railway in Malaysia. Sarawak has complained that it hasn’t been given its due oil royalty from the peninsula-centric federal government. It has been proposed that royalties could be used to build a railway system linking Sibu, Kuching, Miri, and Bintulu.
Like in Laos, the developments to watch in Myanmar are from China. The Dali-Ruili Railway in Yunnan province is being constructed with the eventual intention to make its way across Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal. China want to turn the island of Kyaukphyu into a Special Economic Zone – A “Singapore of the Bengal Sea”. Myanmar have been resistant to the idea as it’s not clear how local residents would benefit.
Apart from China slowly but surely boring a tunnel towards Mynanmar, most of the railway news revolves around continuing to update the most run-down system in Southeast Asia.
The Yangon-Mandalay railway is planned to be upgraded with assistance of Japanese loans. The line from Yangon to Mawlamyine is being refurbished, which will cut the journey from nine and a half hours to six hours. This is scheduled to be done by 2019. The Yangon-Pyay and Mandalay-Myitkyina railroad are also being upgraded.
There is still talk of turning the port of Dawei into an SEZ. Thai contractor Italian-Thai Development expressed its interest which would include a railway from Dawei to Kanchanaburi.
To the west, the India-Myanmar rail project yet to be sanctioned. And with the Rohingya crisis still unfolding, a Myanmar-Bangladesh link would be the last thing on either governments minds.
The Philippines has several heavily populated islands that are in need of better transport. President Duterte has made some big ticket promises, so it remains to be seen if they get started.
We all dream of having a functioning railway network as seen in the East Asian nations. Those countries (ie China, Japan, South Korea) have been generous with donations and loans to their Southeast cousins. At some point though they must wonder what the hell is happening to their money.
On the largest and most populous island in the Philippines, the proposed railway from Manila to Clark International Airport is edging closer to becoming a reality. Stations have been marked and construction is expected to start “later this year”.
To the south, the Bicol Express that used to run from Manila to Naga is still not operating. It was taken out of service in 2012 after the track was damaged by flooding. There is a plan to rebuild the line from narrow gauge to standard gauge, which will be like building a new line rather than refurbishing. As it’s not being reinstated any time soon I have made the line red on the map.
The revival of the Panay Island railway system will have a feasibility study by a company based in Beijing. An American company has also expressed interest, which would include extending the former line to Malay, the gateway to Boracay Island.
The biggest project in Thailand is the upcoming high-speed railway from Bangkok to Nong Khai on the Laos border. This project has been announced for years that it’s about to start, yet not a single shovel has been muddied for the line. With China now boring a hole through Laos, the time for dithering is over. It was announced that the project will finally be underway in October 2017, starting with the Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima line. As you can see by the date-stamp on this post, October is about to come and go, so stay tuned for next years update or join the Southeast Asia Railways group for regular updates.
One project that is progressing well is Bang Sue Central Station. This will be the new “Grand Central Station” of Bangkok, eventually replacing the historic Hua Lamphong Station. There will be 24 platforms at this station and it will serve suburban Bangkok, national, and international services. If all the proposed railways are eventually built, you could see a departure board at Bang Sue with services to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, China, India, Malaysia, and Singapore. It would be a true rail hub of Asia. This may not happen for decades, but at least they are building a train station for future growth.
[Bang Sue Central Station under construction (2017).]
This roundup doesn’t include city metro updates, so news about a line linking the two airports of Bangkok wouldn’t count. A planned high-speed railway linking three international airports does count though. Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok will be connected to U-tapao airport (which serves Pattaya). I can’t think of any city in the world that has three airports connected on the one railway.
Most improvements in Thailand (and much of Southeast Asia) can be made by improving current networks. A 20-year masterplan was announced that involves double-tracking current single lines. Such headlines are not as exciting as new lines with high-speed trains, but double-tracking will make a huge difference to the amount of services that can be run.
[Double tracking means no more waiting at passing loops for opposing trains to pass.]
The east-west railway in the north region of Thailand continues to be of interest. The Korea Rail Network Authority (KRNA) proposed an 800km-long route connecting Maesot, Tak, Sukhothai, Phitsanulok, Khon Kaen and Mukdahan. This is the line that would connect Myanmar to Vietnam, making it an Indian-Pacific railway.
There is still talk (lots of talk) of a Bangkok-Chiang Mai high speed train that was going to be a Shinkansen-style train built by Japan. Now is appears that there is another battle between China and Japan over the rights to build the line.
[Not a Shinkansen train – outside Chiang Mai Railway Station.]
The Prime Minister said that construction would “soon” begin on the Chiang Rai railway. That would run from Denchai on the Chiang Mai line to Chiang Rai, and then onto to Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border. Perhaps “soon” is the ASEAN version of “mañana” which is frequently used in Latin America to put things off until later.
To the south, a Bangkok-KL high-speed train under consideration (again). This is part of the grand Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL). I don’t know how they expect this to work. Malaysia have built a fast train from KL to Padang Besar on the Malaysia-Thailand border with a metre-gauge railway. The railway from China is on a standard gauge, so Malaysia will have to build a brand new line next to the one they just finished. Way to go, Malaysia!
A proposed new train line from Surat Thani to Donsak would connect to ferries to the gulf islands of Koh Samui and Ko Pha Ngan.
News continues to surface of a planned Phuket light rail that would connect the island to Phang Nga on the mainland. That would then connect with a previous plan to run a line to Surat Thani. This year saw a new plan a mega-airport project at Phang Nga, named the Phang Nga-Andaman International Airport, which would be an alternative to Phuket. This has been envisaged by Bangkok Airways, who own other fancy airports around Thailand. Surely they would make a provision for a railway before building this.
A feasibility study has been commissioned for a line connecting the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea. The railway would run from Chumporn to Ranong.
I made an addition to last years map by including a line from Nam Tok to Three Pagodas Pass in Myanmar. This has been proposed many times previously but I didn’t include it originally. That would make two alternative way to Myanmar via Kanchanaburi.
Apart from the delayed construction of the new metro systems of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, there are no new railways to report in Vietnam.
According to former the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Transport, in 40 years Vietnam have not invested in a single metre of commercially viable rail.
There was a proposal to upgrade the current Hanoi to Nanning service to a high-speed rail service but that was not up for consideration by the government.
There was the annual announcement of a probe into a high-speed railway between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, which an arbitrary date in the future was set to delay the decision. This time 2035 has been set as the next delayed date.
[No chance of a high-speed railway on the current line (Nha Trang, Vietnam).]
There is still interest in restoring the Da Lat–Trai Mat railroad, which has not run since 1968.
And the proposition for a high-speed train to Can Tho continues to be mulled, and next year will mark the 10-year anniversary of its first proposition.
With so much going on in Laos perhaps Vietnam will have its hand forced to start some projects of note. Apart from the Savannakhet – Lao Bao line, Vietnam has signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the Vientiane-Thakhaek-Muya railway, which will connect the Lao capital with the Vung Ang seaport in Vietnam’s central Ha Tinh province. The feasibility study is due to be completed by the end of this year. If that went ahead that would make two railways that connect Vietnam and Laos.
If the thought of creating a new high-speed railway is too overwhelming, perhaps starting with some small wins would be the answer. A plan to link Da Nang and Hoi An has been proposed again, which would make sense to do. The land between between the two cities is filling in with with new developments and it will only be a matter of time before traffic chokes this part of the coast.
In between publishing the two maps I discovered a proposal for a Central Highlands lines that would run between HCMC and Danang, via Buon Ma Thuot. There was also another plan for a line from Buon Ma Thuot to Tuy Hoa, so both of those lines are now represented.
This post lists all of the published proposals in Southeast Asia. Just because they are being proposed doesn’t mean they are being built. Here is the list of new lines that are actually being built now:
Poipet to Sisophon.
Medan to Aceh (Northern Sumatra).
Makassar to Parepare (South Sulawesi).
Boten – Thanaleng (from China border to Thailand border).
East Coast Rail Link.
This list is probably not complete so if you know another other proposals send an email or leave a comment.