By Charles F Moreira, Editor
The 1,035 km long Laos – China high-speed railway connecting Vientiane, capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) to Kunming in the People’s Republic of China began passenger and freight service on 3 December 2021, following its official inauguration of the Laotian part of the railway by Laos’ President Thongloun Sisoulith and China’s President Xi Jinping virtually, along with traditional Lao religious blessings on 2 December 2021, Laos’ National Day.
This railway is the first section of the Pan-Asia Rail Network from China into South-East Asia and fulfils Laos’ long-standing need for an international railway which will enable it to transform itself from a land-locked to a land-linked country. It also is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Laotian trains are expected to enable travel between Vientiane and Kunming in about 10 hours, whilst Chinese high-speed trains will travel between Kunming and Vientiane in about the same time.
Named Lanexang, after the Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khau, which existed from 1353 to 1707; it is Laos’ first high-speed trainset and painted in Laos’ red, white and blue national colours, arrived in Vientiane on the 16th of October 2021 and underwent test runs before it went into service.
It is a model CR200J Fuxing trainset, supplied by the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation Ltd (CRRC) and comprises a locomotive and eight coaches. Additional CR200J Fuxing trainsets will follow later.
According to tourism, culture and lifestyle You Tuber, Thai Lao Together, the first coach is for first class, with 52 seats arranged four per row. The second coach is the buffet car and the remaining six are second class coaches with a total of 662 seats arranged five seats per row.
The coaches are fitted with disabled-friendly washrooms, signage in Braille writing in some parts for the visually impaired. WiFi, user-controllable ventilation like on airliners, Laotian and Chinese power sockets and other comforts and facilities for passengers. All signage on the trains will be in Laotian, Chinese and English languages for the benefit of international passengers.
For in-train service, stewards and stewardesses on the Laotian trains have been trained to provide airline-grade passenger service and care on board. They also underwent familiarisation in Laotian and Chinese culture and etiquette, and had undergone a year-long study of Mandarin to serve Chinese passengers.
At the same time in-train service crew on the green coloured Chinese trains which will play the same route from Kunming are being taught the same, as well as Laotian.
Speed and the challenges
The train travels on 1.435 m standard-gauge tracks at speeds between 160 to 210 kmph during regular service, depending on several factors such as the curvature or straightness of the stretch of track, whether it’s passing through tunnels, the distance between stations, the comfort and safety of passengers especially on curved parts of the track and so forth. It has a top speed of 250 kmph.
As a hilly country with rivers and underground water, it poses challenges for high-speed rail which requires mostly straight and level tracks, so instead of curving around mountains, the track was laid, passing over 165 bridges with a combined length of 92 km and 69 tunnels with a combined length of 187 km or 66% of the track’s 422 km between Vientiane and Bo’Ten.
According to the International Union of Railways, the definition of a high-speed rail combines many different elements which constitute a whole, integrated system: – namely, an infrastructure for new lines designed for speeds of 250 km/h and above; upgraded existing lines for speeds of up to 200 or even 220 km/h, including interconnecting lines between high-speed sections; its rolling stock, especially designed specifically for train sets; telecommunications, signalling, operating conditions and equipment and so forth, and this technology is expected to have a major influence on infrastructure development over the next 20 years.
“A very high-speed train (VHST) runs at speeds between 210 and 500 kmph, whilst an ultra high-speed train runs at above 500 kmph”, said Thai Lao Together.
A game changer
Until now, Laos had only 3.5km of railway between Vientiane and the border with Thailand, whilst travel within the mostly mountainous country is by road and air.
This new railway opens up opportunities for business, tourism and trade in goods between both countries, and especially enables Laos to tap into the market of around 200 million in Yunnan province.
The Laotian leg of the railway between Vientiane and Bo’Ten on the border with China passes through 22 goods stations and 10 passenger stations, including the towns and cities of Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Muong Sai (a.k.a. Udom Sai), whilst on the China side, the railway from Kunming passes through Yuxi, Pu’er, Xishuangbanna to Mohan on the border with Laos, with both Laotian and Chinese trains passing through an over 10km tunnel between Mohan and Bo’Ten.
This enables Chinese trains to travel all the way down to Vientiane and Laotian trains to travel all the way up to Kunming.
However, passenger travel between both countries will depend upon whether or not the borders are open depending upon the COVID-19 situation, so for now most rail traffic is expected to be freight transport between both countries.
High-speed rail fares within Laos were published shortly before the Lao – China railway was launched, as revealed by Thai Lao Together, and we mention some examples of fares between major cities here.
These one-way fares quoted in Laotian Kip, are charged according to three classes – namely First, Second and what can be called “Ordinary” class which are charged for travel on the same type of train travelling at ordinary speed.
The First Class fare from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is equivalent to 978 Baht (RM122.32), 618 Baht (RM77.29) for Second Class and 437 Baht (RM54.66) for “Ordinary” class.
The First Class fare from Vientiane to Bo’Ten on the border with China is equivalent to 1,935 Baht (RM242.02), 1,040 Baht (RM130.05) for Second Class and 743 Baht (RM92.92) for “Ordinary” Class.
“For comparison, the air fare between Vientiane is 490,000 Laotian Kip, which is equivalent to 1,500 Baht”, said Lao Thai Together.
Well, that is equivalent to RM187.64, so even the first class train fare between Vientiane and Luang Prabang is less than two-thirds of the air fare, minus the expense and time required to travel between the airport and the city, the check-in time and so forth.
Also, whilst it is not an ideal apples-to-apples comparison, since we only have the road distance on the North-South Highway of 475.7 km between KL Sentral station and Arau, however the fares on Malayan Railway’s fast Electric Train Service from KL Sentral station to Arau, Perlis costs either RM76 one-way for the Gold class train and or RM101 one-way for the Platinum class.
The difference between Gold and Platinum class is that the Platinum class train has fewer stops so travel time is shorter and passengers get complimentary snacks on board, whilst Gold class trains stop at more stations and passengers get nothing complimentary and the journey time is around five hours and 24 minutes compared to five hours and seven minutes on a Platinum class train, both of which travel at a top speed of 140kmph.
Thus, the Gold class fare from KL Sentral to Arau is cheaper than all fares from Vientiane to Bo’Ten, whilst the Platinum class fare is slightly more expensive than the “Ordinary” fare but cheaper than the First and Second class fares for about the same travel time, covering perhaps about the same distance by rail.
Since as early as two months before the launch of the Lao – China railway, tour operators had begun offering package tours by the train, which Thai Lao Together had been receiving on his phone.
The cheapest Thai Lao Together shared in a video on You Tube dated 11 October 2021 is the 3-days/2-nights package tour in Vang Vieng for the equivalent of 6,900 Baht (RM863), including food and 5-star hotel accommodation.
One hours and 30 minutes by the train from Vientiane, Vang Vieng is famous water-recreation activities such as swimming, boating and so forth on its ponds, lakes and rivers
A 5-days/ 4-nights tour with stopovers in Vang Vieng and the historical and cultural city of Luang Prabang costs the equivalent of 10,950 Baht (RM1,369).
Thai Lao Together received several offers of tours from Vientiane all the way to Kunming of varying durations, with multiple stops along the way. The priciest of them being a 15-days/14-nights tour involving seven stops of two nights each in Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Kunming on the outward and return journeys, priced at the equivalent of 43,000 Baht (RM5,374).