Time to touch up the trains

SINGAPORE, 29 November 2019: Flight shaming hasn’t taken off in Asia. It probably won’t gain wings any time soon for one apparent reason. There are very few alternatives outside of China, Japan and India where railway networks offer an alternative to air travel.

As long as it takes 10 to 12 hours to travel 700 km from Bangkok to Chiang Mai then its a no brainer. We fly for THB1,500 one-way as opposed to a life-threatening bus ride for half the price or a painfully slow transfer by train.

I always thought Vietnam’s north-south rail service between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi was on the right track. It is certainly is a cut above the rail services of neighbouring countries.  Malaysia’s railway deserves more investment and even though the track on the Bangkok to Singapore line limits performance a joint effort between Thailand and Malaysia to upgrade the route and rolling stock would give travellers an alternative of the kind Europeans enjoyed for decades before high-speed trains arrived.

Travellers would appreciate a massive upgrade of the Bangkok-Butterworth (Penang) service. Perhaps speeds of 100 kph could be squeezed out of the rolling stock and stations on the link would benefit from a new coat of paint. 

Flight shame could be the catalyst to launch a revival of crucial rail lines linking the countries of mainland Southeast Asia. We may never see the advent of high-speed train travel in the region this side of 2030, but at least we could look forward to travelling in comfort in an environmentally friendly fashion. It would disperse tourism to the provinces, but first governments need to upgrade the rail system and get the average speeds a little higher than 60 kph. Tax papers deserve a better railway system.

Yesterday, the US celebrated Thanksgiving Day, and there was little evidence that flight shame was cutting holiday booking trends.

‘Curbed’  a daily online news service in the US pointed out that during the 12 days of the Thanksgiving travel period, a record-breaking 31.6 million passengers will fly on US airlines; a 3.7% increase over 2018.

US airlines added an estimated 859 flights per day during the peak Thanksgiving travel days.

In contrast, in Europe, airports are reporting a decline in air travel and surprise the Dutch airline KLM is encouraging potential passengers to fly less to help reduce emissions.

We can all play our part by reducing unnecessary air travel or using less pollutive alternatives, but that is easier said than done in Asia.

Critics of the flight shame campaign argue airlines are a soft target, easy to criticise while the real offenders are getting away scot-free.

Take the case of the 55 destinations in Thailand promoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to disperse tourists from gateway destinations.  Do any of them have public transport systems, let alone ones that are environmentally friendly and green?

Many culprits cause climate change, but it is fashionable to point the finger at aviation that is responsible for 3% of emissions globally.

 The beef with airline travel focuses on where the pollution ends up; much higher in the atmosphere where it causes more damage.  No matter how many carbon offsets we buy, it will never be enough to negate the impact.

Whether we like it or not airlines have to speed up the journey to more environmentally friendly fuels and governments may have to dig deep into their coffers to support research and manufacture.

In the meantime, we have neglected railway networks that could help us win more time if we invest in a fast and comprehensive makeover  that makes them more efficient and green.


  1. Priority needs to be given to expanding the rail system and building a comprehensive high-speed rail network. An obvious great need is for a route from Ho Chi Min City through Phnom Penh through Bangkok to Yangon and on to India. Another urgent high-speed route should be from Bangkok to Seim Reap to Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in Cambodia. Obviously there should high-speed routes from Kunming through Vietnam to Ho Chi Min City and from Kunming through Laos and Thailand to Singapore. A southeast Asia Rail pass would help greatly with tourist travel. We need political will to connect the region!

  2. As always a good article Don. Train travel in Thailand is appalling and is in desperate need of an overhaul. Fast rolling stock is readily available look at Japan, Europe and China. To build from scratch with good foundations for high speed-trains to run on with gentle curves and correct cambers is not cheap but do-able. The skill set and know-how maybe lacking in Thailand, however if allowed engineers from Asia can train and assist Thai engineers.

    Thailand could have a wonderful network but we have neither the trains nor good rail lines although there has been much talk in the past.

    Back in August 2017 Thailand’s military government approved a draft contract for the construction and design of the first phase of the country’s high-speed railway project with China. https://www.ttrweekly.com/site/2017/08/thailands-rail-plans-speed-up/

    It was to be the first stage of a high-speed railway that would link Bangkok and the northeast province of Nakhon Ratchasima and was scheduled to be operational by 2021.

    Thailand’s military government claimed that rail development and construction was its top transport priority with plans to double the tracks and modernise the country’s 120-year-old railway networks by increasing the existing 4,000 km of rail infrastructure to 10,000 km over the next decade.

    I am currently travelling in the south of Thailand. To see more of this country and explore, we decided to drive rather than fly. A round trip of some 1800 kms. Train travel would have been great but in Thailand letting the train take the strain is not an option. /AJ Wood

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