Sports fans every season draft fantasy teams and face them off against each other based on how their players perform in the actual contests. Rail fans, when they’re not busy building actual model railroads, have their own versions of fantasy sports teams: maps of rail networks or subway systems they’d like to see.
Globetrotter James Clark has created one of these fantasy rail maps, but with a difference: The lines depicted on it might actually get built, and if they did, they would powerfully transform the countries and economies of Southeast Asia.
Clark, a “digital nomad” born and raised in Melbourne, is actually not so much a rail fan as a travel junkie: His site “Nomadic Notes” features advice for world travelers along with observations and photography from places all over the world. But Southeast Asia holds a special place in his heart.
“My first trip to Southeast Asia was a one-month trip to Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangkok in 2005,” he wrote in an email from Vietnam. “I was hooked from the first day and have been back every year since.” And since 2009, when he gave up a “home base” in Melbourne, he has made Southeast Asia his de facto home, spending most of the year in the region.
That has given him a deep familiarity with the region’s transportation system, which varies widely in terms of development. In Laos and Cambodia, old railroads lie abandoned. Most countries in the region have skeletal networks of single-track, meter-gauge lines, while a few, most notably Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, are at work upgrading and expanding their networks, adding higher-speed, more comfortable standard-gauge railways. The electrified 100-mph line between Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth (near Penang) in Malaysia, currently the fastest passenger train in Southeast Asia, has proved to be a major success in that country.
“When I started to travel around Southeast Asia, I was taking long bus rides that would have taken a quarter of the time anywhere else,” Clark said. “On these long bus trips, I began to wonder what travel would be like if there was a train instead. I kept track of news items of proposed railways, hoping these lines would be built.”
From these news stories, Clark went on to research plans released by the national governments of the region for railway network improvements. His “Future Southeast Asia Railway Map,” which he’s also selling through his site, plots all of the possible city-to-city connections these improvements would make possible in the manner of a subway map.
“Aesthetically, I like subway maps as a way of representing travel between cities and where to interchange,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed fantasy subway maps as well, so being able to contribute my own version was satisfying to make.”
But there was a practical reason for choosing a rapid-transit representation: The exact locations and routes of many of the proposed lines have not been plotted. “In the case of Laos, there are 200 km [124 miles] of bridges and tunnels which they are still surveying for locations,” he explained.
With Chinese backing, Laos is working on a new rail project that’s part of a larger one designed to connect the southern Chinese city of Kunming with Singapore at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. Railroads like this one, Clark said, have the potential to stimulate travel, tourism and much more in Southeast Asia by dramatically cutting travel times. “For example, Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh are 250 km [155 miles] apart, yet this trip takes over seven hours by bus. A regular train traveling at 160 km/h would have this trip done in two hours, including border crossing time. This would be a better option than air when you factor in airport time.”
And Clark notes that low-cost airlines have already increased travel within the region. “People now take short city breaks or visit regional cities that were previously not a consideration. A fully functioning railway network would also change travel in the region for the better.”
The types of projects on the drawing boards vary from double-tracking existing rail lines to full-blown high-speed rail lines that would require all-new rights of way and infrastructure. When asked how he would prioritize the possible improvements, Clark put the HSR projects at the bottom of his list. “Completing the international missing links should be the highest priority,” he said. “Those links are Vietnam-Cambodia, Cambodia-Thailand, Thailand-Myanmar and Myanmar-Laos-China.”
And China will likely play a major role in moving many of the projects forward. “China went from no high-speed railways to a network of 20,000 km [12,427 miles] in the space of 10 years, so their knowledge will help,” he said. Rocky relations between China and some of its neighbors, like Vietnam and Myanmar, have slowed or stymied some planned international routes, but Clark noted that the existence of some international service between China and Vietnam demonstrates that the obstacles could be overcome.
What odds does Clark give for his fantasy rail network becoming reality? He refused to be specific, and he noted that many of the region’s governments have “a poor track record of making promises and not delivering.” But he said there’s also the people’s will: “There is definitely a demand for a modern railway network in the region, especially in mainland Southeast Asia. Success will depend on how fast the trains are, what gauge they run on, and if the tracks are double or remain on single lines.”
Next City contributor Sandy Smith is an associate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.