Bangkok to Saigon by train

What would a Bangkok-Phnom Penh-HCMC high-speed railway service look like.

Last week I posted about the mysterious proposal of a Hanoi - Luang Prabang - Chiang Mai railway. While this is unlikely to happen, a more realistic city triplet would be Bangkok - Phnom Penh - Ho Chi Minh City.

[Ga Sai Gon - the main railway station of HCMC.]

This would be a dream route for me, being based in Saigon and a frequent visitor to Bangkok. Indeed, when I visited the worksite of Bang Sue Grand Station I imagined what an international departure board would look like if it showed Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City alongside Vientiane and Kunming.

[Bang Sue construction, 2019. Enough room for a Phnom Penh-HCMC service.]

It’s now technically possible to travel by train from Bangkok - Phnom Penh since the railways were reconnected at the border in 2019. We were set to have international services between Thailand and Cambodia until 2020 happened.

Putting aside the pandemic, if there was a direct service from Bangkok to Phnom Penh it would take at least 16 hours for the approximately 650 km journey. If a direct service isn’t launched then you would have the even worse situation of having to overnight in the Cambodian border town of Poipet to get the early morning train. In either case, this is never going to be able to compete with flying.

There is no railway between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, which is one of the missing links of the Trans-Asia Railway. I’ve already covered that line here.

This week’s article is about railways in the Southern Economic Corridor, which runs between the ports of Dawei in Myanmar and Vung Tau in Vietnam. New railways have been proposed in this corridor which would finally enable a Bangkok-Saigon service.

In the Thailand section, Japan proposed a new high-speed service with a speed of more than 200km/h. The distance from Bangkok to the Cambodian border is about 260km, so that would be about 1h 30min travel time compared to the current fastest train of 4h 30min.

In Cambodia there has been no formal proposal to build a high-speed railway, so we are stuck with the slow train on the old metre-gauge railway. The current railway from the border to Phnom Penh is about 385km, so a 200km/h train would make that a 2-hour trip. It would thus take about 3.5 hours by high-speed rail from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, making it a better alternative to flying.

The distance between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City is about 240km, so about 90 minutes for a high-speed railway service. The total travel time from Saigon to Bangkok would then be about 5 hours, making it a reasonable alternative to flying. The main stumbling block would be international border crossings, which is not factored into these travel estimates.

The Eurostar service between the UK and France gets around this by putting immigration control of both countries at the originating station. At St Pancras in London you pass through UK immigration, then French immigration, then get on the train. Once you arrive at Gare du Nord in Paris you just walk out of the station without showing your passport.

For this to work, the train can’t stop on the way. For a Bangkok-Saigon through service, it would have to stop at Phnom Penh so there would be no way around avoiding another immigration control. Maybe it would be like the old days in Europe when immigration inspectors board the train at the border, and passengers don’t get off the train.

These are problems that Southeast Asia is years away from having to solve, but it’s the sort of thing that I think about when looking at future rail maps. We might find out when the Bangkok-Nong Khai high-speed railway is finished. If a Bangkok-Vientiane direct service is launched then I will be interested to see how immigration is handled.

Once normal travel resumes I will be trying out the Bangkok-Phnom Penh railway, even if it takes me a day and I have to stay in Poipet. Ahh, the things I will do for this website.

[Phnom Penh Railway Station.]

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