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Tea Leaves

In praise of Southeast Asia's old railways

As high speed rail projects proliferate new uses must be found for older lines

An old stream train makes a rare departute from Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok. (Photo by David Sutton)

Early morning at Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Station is a busy time as overnight trains discharge sleepy passengers into the cacophony of the city via the station's enormous arched main hall. A huge portrait of King Chulalongkorn, the architect of modern Thailand, gazes down on travelers filled with the excitement of journeys yet to come.

Four times a year, I visit this station to watch the departure of a train hauled by two beautifully preserved Japanese-built steam locomotives. At 8 a.m. the whistle blows and steam billows from the engines as the train begins its run. A bright orange phuang malai (flower garland) hangs on the front, and 10 spotless burgundy-and-cream coaches are lined up behind.

With the arc of the station roof as the backdrop, it is an impressive sight, and I'm not the only one who turns up to enjoy it. Before its departure, children and adults queue to have their photographs taken with the train. Beyond the platforms, a phalanx of photographers, both local and international, jostle to document its departure.

Afterwards I wander back up the platform and into the station's food court for breakfast. Railways are in my DNA. My father was an avid train spotter, and both my grandfather and my elder brother built miniature steam locomotives to haul children around public parks. In my youth I volunteered to restore old stations for one of England's many preserved railways.

People have their photos taken with the steam locomotive prior to departure at Hua Lamphong Station. (Photo by David Sutton)

Hua Lamphong is one of Southeast Asia's last remaining grand old railway stations, and it breaks my heart to know it is scheduled for a drastic change in 2021. Except for one route, all services will be moved to a new transport hub at Bang Sue, which will also be the Bangkok terminal for a new high-speed rail network. Hua Lamphong will be turned into a museum.

Kuala Lumpur's lovely old station is also supposed to have become a museum, but on my last visit I could see no evidence of that. To be fair, the station is still in daily use -- its neo-Moorish domes still preside over a handful of commuter trains each day -- but the elegant old colonial-style hotel with its teak staircase and atmospheric bar is boarded up. Its once pristine white facade is tattered and worn, and I could not make even a cursory exploration of the platforms without buying a ticket to go somewhere.

With high-speed rail projects underway or being planned throughout Southeast Asia, it is inevitable that these projects will be linked into a new region-wide network. Malaysia is already building an East Coast Rail Link to connect its eastern beaches with a planned Kuala Lumpur-to-Singapore high-speed rail line, scheduled to open in 2031.

A line from Vientiane in Laos to Kunming in China is due to open in 2022, and will eventually link with a Thai network expected to open in phases between 2025 and 2036. This will reduce transfer times and carbon footprints for shipments of goods and tourists between China and Southeast Asia.

These trains will run on standard-gauge track -- wider than the 1,000 mm track for existing railways in much of Southeast Asia -- which means the new trains will not be able to run on older lines. Some of the existing networks will continue, but others are likely to close or become underutilized. So this is a good time to talk about earmarking some of the old networks for preservation.

Kuala Lumpur's once magnificent railway station. (Photo by David Sutton)

Museums preserve heritage buildings, but the exhibits within them are often cold and lifeless. With the right marketing, these older railways can become excellent tourist attractions. In Britain, home of railways and the epicenter of preservation, The Railway Touring Company runs 60 to 65 day trips a year carrying about 19,000 passengers in rolling stock pulled by steam-powered locomotives.

These trains operate on the national network, alongside modern rolling stock. There are also scores of preserved railways. England alone has 119 -- in an area not much bigger than Indonesia's Java island -- including main line, local and industrial railways.

The idea is not without precedent in Asia. The North Borneo Railway, operated in Malaysia's Sabah State by the Sutera Harbour Resort, runs two trains a week between Tanjung Aru and Papar. And the steam specials that depart from Hua Lamphong are always well subscribed.

With ever increasing numbers of tourists flooding into Southeast Asia, causing concern about "over-tourism" and closures of popular attractions such as Thailand's Maya Bay and the Philippines' Boracay Island, it would make sense to offer alternatives. It might even be possible to use the region's railways to carry tourists to locations that might otherwise be ignored. In many cases, the infrastructure already exists. All that is needed is the will and some savvy marketing.

David Sutton is a Bangkok-based writer and author of "The Mango Road" travel blog.


Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok is scheduled to close in 2021. This article has been amended.

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