You are now boarding the Singapore Line. Mind the Gap.

The Chinese Government is full of money and strange plans.   The latest plan is a long long train line.  They’re reaching out all the way to London with a VFT.  That’s a Very Fast Train, like Japan’s Shinkansen or France’s TGV.

The thing will go at over 300 km/h (estimated speeds are 320-500 ks)  and soak up the 8000 km journey to London in a couple of days.

And that’s not all.  They’re extending the network out in the other direction too.  Vietnam, Malaysia, and on to Singapore.

Is this a good thing?  Well, the emissions of train travel are freakishly low.   Check out this analysis from ecopassenger.org

Train travel, furthermore, is one of the most charming ways to get you and your stuff across the solid bits of the earth.  It is axiomatic that reclining in compartment four while an ever-changing vista of exotic mountain ranges and primitive villages blurs by (thanks to a combination of high speed and gin) is among the most refined of human pleasures.

Now, the price of the ticket is going to be higher than your Ryanair special deals, but that’s not really the comparison.  The train traveler gets a bed and can linger in the dining car over a vegan fettucine and several martinis, so first and business class may be better comparators.

But will the business traveller ride?  i.e.  Is this the right scale for VFTs?  Trains work well where the fixed costs of airline travel (getting to the airport, security, etc) is around half the total time of the trip.  When you’re comparing a 40-hour train ride to an eleven-hour flight, it might be somewhat different.  The marginal comfort is probably not as valuable as the extra time.

Building rails across the land means you can’t take the straightest possible line (through the Arctic circle) and that you might as well stop along the way.   The Beijing-London route would most likely end up being used for segments rather than for end-to-end travel.

VFTs have historically been about moving people not things.  But the planned route mimics that original international trade superhighway, the silk route.  The Chinese government says the VFT will be a freight route as much as a passenger route.  This is not surprising, given the Chinese Government’s enthusiasm for exporting everything they’ve got that that isn’t Chinese people.

I’m starting to think the international relations aspect of this project is more interesting than the public transport aspects.  The Chinese Government’s return on investment might not come in tickets sold or tonnes of freight moved…

Most countries don’t have the will and resources to build extensive rail networks within their own borders.  In this plan China is trying to build railway lines in at least a dozen countries.  (To the west: India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and beyond; to the south: Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore.)  Why?

It wouldn’t surprise me if the corridors set aside for these railways fortuitously have space for an oil pipeline or two…

And, will China ask other governments to co-invest in the railways?  It seems more likely that these countries will be asked to trade something equally valuable.  A bit of internet research reveals that:

China [is] offering to bankroll the Burmese line in exchange for the country’s rich reserves of lithium, a metal used in batteries

Furthermore, if China controls the rolling stock that services these train lines, they control some of the flow of goods and people into these places.   This will increase their soft power in the region. Simultaneously, the threat of removal of the service will burnish their ‘hard’ power.

Just as all roads once led to Rome, soon all VFTs will lead to the Middle Kingdom.  The hub of the world’s largest train network may be the capital of a carbon-constrained world.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

3 thoughts on “You are now boarding the Singapore Line. Mind the Gap.”

  1. It’s all very well to fear China’s growth with trepidation – but any possibility of the West maintaining moral leadership, let alone economic or even military leadership – has been lost decades ago.

    If you had to write 100 words to summarise the history of the West since WWII, a few might be good but look at the rest:

    Watergate, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Debt, Excessive Regulation, Rampant Greed, Careerist Politicians, Apathy, Jingoism, Monica Lewinsky, Children Overboard, Waterboarding, Sub-Prime, Dot Com Bubble, Retalin Generation, Downward Envy, Urban Sprawl, Road Rage, Global Warming, Obesity Epidemic, Reality Television, Coalition of the Willing, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Iran Contra Affair, Central America, Apartheid…

    And on it goes. China of course does not have much to crow about during the same period but you can see the West has eroded its own moral authority for much less than 30 pieces of silver.

    A lot of Americans really struggle to understand their place in the world and don’t understand that goodwill is not a tap that can be turned on and off at will.

    No doubt some latter day Anglo-American imperialist would like to dream their own world-conquering dream of railways or whatever – but the sea of debt, the lack of authority of the political classes in these countries, the policy gridlock, the vested interests and the apathy of the population will never allow this.

    Not saying I want a dictatorship – but a good cleanup at home is a start.

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  2. I think you are missing the main point. This isn’t about moving people around Asia. It’s about moving resources to China, and finished goods out. It’s about replacing dependency on Australian iron that needs to be shipped across an ocean with something from Central Asia.

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