Third-World Train Speeds

Developing countries often have no railroads, or poorly developed ones. In India, the colonial railway network and more recent additions form a tight mesh, and train speeds today are in the 80-90 km/h range, respectable by the standards of legacy rail lines in Europe and the US that have not received significant upgrades. But in nearly all other ex-colonies in Africa and Asia, the situation is far worse – some countries have no railways, and others do but have slow lines from port to the interior. This is an attempt to catalog the average speeds of various countries’ fastest intercity trains; only in few cases are they even as fast as many Amtrak trains. Most of the information is taken from Seat61.

Syria: before the war, the fastest trains traveled the 361 km between Damascus and Aleppo in 4 hours, an average speed of 90 km/h.

Egypt: the fastest trains between Cairo and Alexandria (called Specials) do it in 2.5 hours, a distance of 208 km. This is 83 km/h.

Indonesia: the express trains between Jakarta and Surabaya do the 725-km trip in 9 hours. This is 81 km/h.

Pakistan: the Shalimar Express and Karakoram Express go between Karachi and Lahore in about 16 hours, a distance of about 1,250 km, according to Wikipedia. This is about 78 km/h.

Thailand: from Bangkok, trains go to Chiang Mai in (at the fastest) 10.5-11 hours for 751 km, Nong Khai in about 10 hours for 621 km, Ubon Ratchathani in 8 hours for 575 km, and Surat Thani in 8:40-9 hours for 651 km. At the fastest, it’s about 73 km/h.

South Africa: from Johannesburg, the long-distance trains average in the 50s. The fastest is Johannesburg-Cape Town, which does 1,530 km in 26 hours, an average of 59 km/h.

Zambia: the Golden Jubilee Express trains travel the 467 km between Livingstone and Lusaka in 12:27, for an average speed of 38 km/h. The through-trains to Tanzania go between the border and Kapiri Mposhi, a distance of 882 km, in 16:39 (and the source says they’re often late by many hours), an average speed of 52 km/h. Tanzania, in the same link, has an average speed from Dar es Salaam to the border of about 38 km/h.

Bangladesh: the fastest trains between Dhaka and Chittagong do the trip in just under 7 hours; on Google Earth, the route seems to be about 310 km. This is 45 km/h on average.

Burma: the fastest trains between Yangon and Mandalay, a distance of 622 km, do the trip in 14 hours, for an average of 44 km/h.

Kenya: Nairobi-Mombasa trains take about 15 hours. The line is 610 km long, for an average speed of 41 km/h.

Vietnam: trains go between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in about 56 hours, a distance of 1,726 km. This is 31 km/h.

16 comments

  1. Joseph

    Re: Indonesia. Jakarta – Semarang – Surabaya is currently the fastest route, having been upgraded in 2014. The “Argo Anggrek” limited-stop trains that you mentioned have a top speed of not more than 120 km/h so averaging 81 km/h isn’t bad for the route. Just 2 years ago the mainline was largely single-tracked and most trains took 12 or 13 hours from Jakarta to Surabaya. The current 8.5 hour time was a big improvement. The other main line from Jakarta to Yogyakarta and Surakarta is slower.
    There is little freight on this line during the day; heavy freight between provinces can go by ship and low labor costs keep trucking cheap, though there are plans to encourage more freight rail service.
    Much of the route is straight and all of it is very flat, suggesting the potential to upgrade max speeds to 200 km/hr with moderate amount of investment in the existing tracks. These three cities are the national capital and the capital cities of Central and East Java provinces (the 5th and 2nd largest cities), and all are urbanizing rapidly. Trip times of 2 hr 30 min (averaging 140 kmh) from Jakarta to Semarang would be faster than flying and operations would be profitable at least. The Semarang to Surabaya route could get down to 2 hours easily, again beating flying on the route. It would take a new, high-speed alignment to get the Jakarta to Surabaya time down under 4.5 hours (potentially to as little as 2.5 hours at 280 kmh average with a new 700 km alignment).

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, Indonesia is investing a lot in its trains, and I want to talk about this sometime. (India is, too, by the way.) I think if anything it should have done so earlier: in PPP terms, Indonesia and China have the same GDP per capita, and Jakarta is already developing in a more auto-oriented direction than (say) Beijing and Shanghai. But there is a lot of investment going on there – there’s the subway project I talked about a few months ago, BRT, and commuter rail modernization using second-hand Japanese rolling stock, with high all-day frequency on several lines.

      HSR from Jakarta to Surabaya is an interesting project, in that it doesn’t pass through toooooo many intermediate cities, but given how Indonesia is only about 50% urban, and how northern Java has higher density than many US Sunbelt cities, it doesn’t really matter. The stations would develop into cities. Generally, the same aspects that make a build-it-and-they’ll-come strategy fail in most developed countries make it work well in developing ones, even ones with relatively low population growth like Indonesia.

      • Joseph

        The population density of the rural counties or regencies (“Kabupaten”) along the route to Semerang is 900 to 1600 per square kilometer, with most around 1000 (or 2500 per square mile); 1/2 the density of Portland Oregon, or the whole Los Angeles Metro area, and more dense than metro Atlanta. And even the smaller cities on the route, which are not included in the county population figures, have 7000 to 15,000 people per square kilometer within their limits, though the biggest is less than 1 million people (except for Semarang). I suspect the population of each of these cities to double in 30 years, based on trends of over 3% urban growth (http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2012/05/12/urbanization-and-urban-development-patterns.html).
        Here is a nice map of population density: http://www.sinfonica.or.jp/international/indonesia_hp/indonesia_pop_density_Jawa-bali.jpg
        As you can see, there actually are a number of mid-sized cities along the Jakarta to Surabaya direct route, especially where it closely follows the coast in Central Java province: Cirebon, Tegal, and Pekalongan in addition to Semarang. There are no major cities between Surabaya and Semarang on the shortest route, unfortunately; the cities in that region are farther south and mountains make a direct line difficult, and there is also a gap of 160 between the suburbs of Jakarta and Cirebon (though Bandung would be on a spur off of this part). However, I suspect this makes High Speed trains for useful, as few stops are needed to hit all the significant cities; there is be a stop every 80 to 160 km on the current limited-stop train.
        The transit system in Indonesian cities is very labor intensive, with vans used for most routes within small cities, and minibuses between towns. The national train system and commuter trains have only recently been upgraded. The latest Lonely Planet guidebook (2010) still warns about trains with no doors and open windows, over crowded with people (as seen in India), but already the trains have been improved. Currently Indonesia has been investing in toll-roads; 4 lane (2 each way) expressways between major cities. With such a high overall rural density and intensive agriculture, there is no where to build except up, without cutting into productive fields, similar to the situation in eastern China or Japan.

  2. Joseph

    Indonesia lacks a plan for a full high speed rail route from Jakarta to Surabaya. But Japan and China have both offered loans to construct a 150 km high speed rail route from Jakarta to Bandung, the capital city of West Java. President Jokowi announced that a decision would be made soon; I have seen an estimated price of $US 4.4 to 5.5 Billion, or $US 35 to 45 million per kilometer: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/08/14/japan-leaves-out-state-funding-match-china-s-high-speed-rail-proposal.html
    The current rail route twists through the mountains north of Bandung and takes 3.5 hour to go those 150 km. Even the trip on the new toll expressway takes 2 hours 15 minutes without traffic per Google (and there is always traffic getting out of or into Jakarta); a high speed train should be successful, especially since Bandung is the provincial capital for all the growing suburban (but densely populated) cities south and east of Jakarta. Bandung has a city population of 2.5 million and the metro are is 7.5 million; central Jakarta has 11 million inhabitants with 30 million in the greater metro area.
    The relatively low income of Indonesia will lead to lower HSR ridership than comparable Western cities. Today GDP per capita of $3500 is half that of China (though twice as high as India), and the median household income is $4000 per year. On the other hand, the top 20% of households make $8000 per year or more, and the top 10% is over $20,000; millions of people in Jakarta are at these levels where flights and high speed rail are worth the time savings over cheap buses.
    I haven’t found figure for domestic flights, but Jakarta (JKT) has 62 million passengers a year total, Surabaya airport gets 30 million passengers a year including International flights, Semarang 3.3 million/year (mainly domestic), But with 4 to 5% a year GDP growth and even faster urbanization, Indonesia will have increasing demand for intercity travel. China and Japan are both betting that they can drum up future business by offering a good deal for this first line. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/08/22/race-indonesia-s-high-speed-railway-part-a-big-game.html

  3. Adirondacker12800

    Boston-Albany in nice round numbers is 65 km/h. It’s why there is only one train a day for the land cruise passengers.
    South Africa isn’t third world. They bought into the 50s fantasy that we were going to fly and drive everywhere…. so did New England…

    • Nathanael

      And that’s not even the slowest Amtrak segment. Dallas to Fort Worth is the most embarassing, I think.

      At least they’re speeding up New Haven to Hartford, but it’s very slow right now.

      • Alon Levy

        Okay, so the slower trains in the US (I think the single slowest is actually Albany-Montreal, by the way) have the same speed range as the fastest trains in most of the developing world; the fastest in relatively functional systems, like India, Indonesia, and Egypt, are about on a par with the faster non-NEC Amtrak runs, e.g. the Empire corridor and Chicago-Kansas City.

    • Alon Levy

      South Africa is very much third world; its per capita GDP is the same as that of China and the Dominican Republic. In the apartheid era it pretended to be just like the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (except Afrikaner rather than English!), but even the Afrikaners were often poor and rural, and of course the black living standards were very low. Since apartheid ended the situation has flipped and now its (black) leaders and public intellectuals are trying styling themselves the leaders of the third world, of global social justice, and of Africa.

      It’s also kind of crass to compare it with New England especially. In New England, the purpose was to get people to drive, and forcibly assimilate various ethnic whites. In South Africa, the purpose of every policy between the late 1940s and the early 1990s was to exclude nonwhites.

      • Ian Mitchell

        South Africa is, in a word, complicated.

        Any discussion of ethnicity not including Afrikaners, English, Indians, coloureds, and blacks, is generalizing to the point of falsehood.

        English, Afrikaners, and Indians drive like Americans. Blacks live live most black Africans. Coloureds are the only group commonly found in multiple economic strata. There’s a black middle class in gauteng, but basically nowhere else.

        It’s a country more like Mexico or the southern US than it is like Tanzania or Honduras.

        I lived there for a portion of last year.

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  5. William Lipfert

    Thanks for your always-informative narratives.   I noted that your Viet Nam travel times are much too long.  Best trip time is actually 31:20.  See: http://www.vietnamrailways.net/train-schedule-from-hanoi-to-saigon/   Bill Lipfert From: Pedestrian Observations To: wlipfert@yahoo.com Sent: Sunday, August 23, 2015 3:42 AM Subject: [New post] Third-World Train Speeds #yiv1983278670 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv1983278670 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv1983278670 a.yiv1983278670primaryactionlink:link, #yiv1983278670 a.yiv1983278670primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv1983278670 a.yiv1983278670primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv1983278670 a.yiv1983278670primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv1983278670 WordPress.com | Alon Levy posted: “Developing countries often have no railroads, or poorly developed ones. In India, the colonial railway network and more recent additions form a tight mesh, and train speeds today are in the 80-90 km/h range, respectable by the standards of legacy rail lin” | |

  6. michael.r.james

    Excuse me if this is slightly off-topic:

    Reminds me of my first tramp around Asia 36 years ago. I caught the train from Singapore up the west coast of Malaysia, via KL to Butterworth where I stopped for a few days (ie. to visit Georgetown-Penang). Because the train to Bangkok only went every 3 or 4 days and my timing didn’t match, I shared a taxi with a French couple (who convinced me to accompany them to the then barely-known Koh Samui; this was amazingly reminiscent of the opening scenes of DiCaprio’s movie The Beach!) across the border which includes passing thru the “no man’s land” or DMZ of the restless Muslim area of southern Thailand (whom some think may be responsible for the temple bombing in Bangkok last week). It is safe on the train but there is a slight frisson driving thru it because there were occasional holdups! One could catch up with the train at the next Thai town. This was probably because it stopped for many hours (maybe even a day?) and not just because the train was so slow. One gets off the train at Surat Thani at midnight to catch the midnight ferry across to Koh Samui (which didn’t have an airport back then).
    I also took the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and back. The train stops at both of the ancient ruined cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. I still vividly remember getting off the train right at dawn and walking into the city ruins.
    These trains may be slow but they are a terrific experience, certainly compared to bus or car, or air.

    I have long wanted to do the Saigon/HCMCity to Hanoi train journey. But it was to be part of a bigger journey that included Hanoi to Kunming (then into the heart of Yunnan, Dali, LiJiang & Zhongdian then into Sichuan eventually looping back to either Shanghai or HK). The original 1910 French-built railway up the mountains has long been closed but the Chinese claimed to have a plan to rebuild it. …. Ok, I just checked and the Kunming-Mengzi–Hekou railway opened in Dec 2014 (or was due to)! Hekou is on the VN border next to the famous hilltown resort Lào Cai on the VN side. Max speed 120 kph. Apparently some heroic engineering to remove the steep grades of the original line. I think the Chinese will be doing deals with the Vietnamese to upgrade the line from Lào Cai to Hanoi to the port at Haiphong.

    Hmm. I might make this part of my next trip to Europe. Singapore to Paris. by train. (There’s only one little segment thru Laos that needs a bus.) Of course the Trans-Siberian from China; this too has a low average speed but considering the extreme winters, the semi-marshland quasi-permafrost and sheer distance, it is remarkable it exists at all. I did the west-east journey about 15 years ago.

  7. JJJJJJ

    One should also factor in actual trip times vs scheduled times. Isnt Amtrak notorious for arriving 10 hours late on some cross-country runs? Im sure the same type of stuff happens elsewhere.

  8. EJ

    Hmm, so the Pacific Surfliner averages 45 mph between San Diego and LA. They totally should advertise – “We’re at least 30% faster than Bangladesh!”

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