By Ho Xu Zhe
During my studies at Peking University, I have often compared the urban rail transit maps of Chinese cities by looking at them with the Beidu app on my mobile phone. I am still most impressed by the Beijing subway.
Economic Effects of Rail Transport
When I first arrived in Beijing, some senior Malaysian students offered to travel with me by subway to local tourist attractions such as Tian’anmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace. I have taken the subway everywhere ever since. The experience at different times and locations has offered me a window to observe the city in motion. For example, when I take Line 5 during the morning rush hour, I get to experience the frenzied transfer stop on the platform of the Huixin Xijie Nankou Station where it meets Line 10. I have seen passengers at Tiantongyuan North Station (in suburban Changping District) squeeze into a crowded carriage bound for the city center. When I took Line 2 to the Beijing Railway Station, I saw passengers with different accents and large pieces of luggage on their shoulders, most heading home with the bounty they had earned in the capital city. Every experience has become an important resource and first-hand material for me to understand how Beijing and the entire country move.
Having observed and experienced rail transport for some time, I grasp the important nature of both the subway and the national railway network—they are crucial public transportation infrastructure. As a public service, infrastructure has become an important tool to enable individuals and even society in a region to seize well-rounded development. Economic infrastructure is formed by adding economic content.
In addition to serving social development, economic infrastructure targets promoting trade, production and consumption. Indeed, economic effects are the goal of economic infrastructure.
A typical example of economic infrastructure is the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway. Commercial operation of the railway commenced in 2011, connecting the major economic blocks of the Beijing- Tianjin-Hebei region and the Yangtze River Delta. Business travel promoted by the national economy and consumption-oriented travel have supported smooth operation of this rail route with a capacity of 520,000 passengers per day. As typical economic infrastructure, the convenient transportation on the high-speed railway has fostered new economic growth points along the route, bringing development opportunities for other cities along the way such as Jinan, Xuzhou, Nanjing and Wuxi.
Effects on Individuals
My observations soon turned to the effects of railways on consumption-oriented individuals. The economic development brought about by railways orients consumption behavior in new directions as a result of surmounting various concerns caused by geographical separation while maintaining the original consumption attitude to the greatest extent. High-speed railways reduce time costs for consumers, enabling them to enjoy resources in different geographical locations. The speed of high-speed rails quietly breaks geographical barriers between different social groups, creating the potential to alleviate inequality in resource distribution in different regions.
Educational resources are one example. Eying better education for their children, middle-class families in major Chinese cities invest heavily in properties near elite schools and extra-curricular activities. The convenience of high-speed rails makes it easier for parents to build a wider platform for their children by sending them to the cities with more advanced educational resources.
One day in mid-July, I traveled from Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, to Beijing on a high-speed train. I sat next to a father and son, who were chatting and laughing most of the time. But the boy looked worried sometimes. After a brief conversation with them, I discovered that the father had arranged for his son to go on an overseas study tour through an educational institution in Beijing. The purpose of their journey was to attend a preliminary interview. They were planning on returning to Taiyuan in the evening after the interview. Taiyuan is about 500 kilometers from Beijing— formerly a major distance cut short by high-speed trains to three hours. Distance is no longer an obstacle preventing children from chasing their dreams.
Is Chinese Experience Applicable to All?
Rail development has changed attitudes towards consumption, helping balance resource gaps between regions. Due to demographic dividends, it is also the source of new economic growth. Railway construction in China has contributed to economic development and the changes in consumption attitudes. I started wondering whether it would do the same in Malaysia.
In recent years, Chinese companies have undertaken several railway projects in Malaysia including the MRT2 (Kuala Lumpur subway) contracted to China Railway Group Limited (REG) and China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a bilateral cooperation project to upgrade public transportation infrastructure in the five east coast states, and the upgrade of the subway system connecting Gemas in my home state of Negeri Sembilan and Johor Baru, the capital of the state of Johor, adjacent to Singapore. I’m extremely optimistic about using such China-supported infrastructure projects to answer my question. Completion of those railway projects should bring similar economic benefits as such projects in China if Chinese experience can be properly applied in Malaysia. However, determining results has not been as simple as I had hoped after taking into consideration the current development situation and social characteristics in Malaysia as well as my own recent experience.
Maintaining a stable railway operation mechanism is essential for the Chinese railway infrastructure to bring about economic dividends and changes in consumption attitude. Several challenges stand in the way of Chinese experience being applied in Malaysia. The most critical issue is the imperfection of Malaysia’s public transport operation mechanism. Malaysia lacks long-term operating standards for public transport, which has resulted in uneven distribution due to unbalanced concentration of resources. Furthermore, operation hours change from time to time, which makes it difficult to shape a long-term railway management mechanism.
Problems with Rail Transport in Malaysia
I recently traveled twice fromKuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to my hometown via public transport. After arriving in Kuala Lumpur in October, I headed straight to a friend’s party. When I went to the railway station to book an evening ticket for Gemas, I was informed that the timetable had changed since the beginning of September. The 11:00 p.m. was instead departing at 09:50 p.m. To catch the train, I had to readjust my schedule. I later learned from my family that the timetable had changed four times within two years.
But this was nothing new. The train timetable changed frequently when I was very young. In those days, most carriages on the railway operated by Malaysia Railway Authority (Keretapi Tanh Melayu Bhd, KTM) were imported second-hand carriages with easily damaged components, not ideal for longterm operation. The timetable frequently changed due to the available number of operational carriages.
In 2015, a rolling stock center of China’s CRRC (the world’s largest train manufacturer) became fully operational in Batu Gajah. The import of Chinese investment and technology allows for manufacturing carriages and conducting major overhauls in Malaysia, markedly improving production efficiency. For the Malaysian people, the success of this investment project solved many long-standing management failures of the Malaysian railway. However, not every operation problem was solved.
In my opinion, the fundamental problem with management of the Malaysian railway has been the longstanding widening gap between the cities along the routes. Currently, the elites of society and other resources are concentrated in Kuala Lumpur, which consequently attracts many young migrant workers from other states. Since the inter-city public transport infrastructure was poor, migrant workers had to consider the time and cost of daily commuter transport. To get to work without too much trouble, they would squeeze into the densely populated capital or Klang Valley. All kinds of economic activities were concentrated in the capital while the infrastructure for inter-state economic flow remained relatively weak.
In terms of layout, the Malaysian railway network is shaped like a “Y” with the main north-south artery and the ECRL running from Gemas to the northeast Malay Peninsula. It’s a pity that the infrastructure legacy of the former British colony Malaya (Malaysia before independence) was not maintained after independence. For over a dozen years, some cities away from rail routes such as Malacca and Batu Pahat have developed great potential while other cities along the routes that boast glorious histories of economic development have remained stagnant, most notably Taiping in Perak state.
Low ridership has led to a drastic decline in train operational hours. Due to a lack of choice in public transport, many Malaysian people are left choosing between automobiles or motorbikes. Over time, many have become accustomed to traveling in private vehicles. Although private vehicles are popular in China, most people still prefer to travel by public transport. In the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, if a passenger from Tangshan or Qinhuangdao (in Hebei Province) wants to catch a plane in Beijing, he or she can get there by inter-city train or high-speed train and then reach the airport by subway or airport express. They are used to this method of travel.
At the end of September, I returned to Malaysia from Tianjin. I traveled by high-speed train from Beijing to Tianjin before boarding the Tianjin subway to the airport. It took me only an hour and half without any delays. A similar situation in Malaysia would have different results. On my way back from my home to KLIA, for example, although I could take a train to Kuala Lumpur, I had to take my family car instead to avoid missing my flight due to spotty train service and frequent delays.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare the rail transport in China and Malaysia because myriad factors are at play. But I personally believe that it’s smart to dig deep below the surface to find the roots of the problems.
After my experience in both Malaysia and China, I think it is important to make comparative analysis and draw upon the experience that can be applied in bilateral infrastructure cooperation to increase understanding between the two peoples. It’s also important to recognize the differences in the economic structures of the two countries in terms of railways and consolidate a variety of ideas and interdisciplinary practice as an important asset in cross-cultural study and understanding. We can learn more about management operations and cultural differences from transnational comparative studies of economic infrastructure.
The reflections on my own experience on the rails of Malaysia and China have not only deepened my understanding of China’s economic development, but also shaped my analytical paradigm for Malaysia and its relations with China.