Top 5: High-Speed Railways in Emerging Markets

High-speed trains are removing transportation bottlenecks in large developing countries at a reasonable cost.

Definitions vary as to what can be labeled as a high-speed train, but any rail services operating at speeds of over 150 km/h may fall within the high-speed spectrum.

No matter how you define them, high-speed trains are the Holy Grail of transportation: much faster and safer than road transportation, but without the fuss and expenses of air travel.

They particularly suit geographically large developing economies which are on the look out for a versatile and economical way of transportation.

Japan’s legendary bullet train system, the Shinkansen, came into service in the 1960s, during the country’s rapid modernization.

Traveling at speeds of up to 320 km/h at the time, Shinkansen trains carried millions of Japanese commuters to work and back every week.

Similarly, France laid the foundation of its famous Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) in the 1970s, with the rail line fully coming into service in 1981.

The French TGV carries well over 110 million passengers per year across its 3,000-kilometer network now.

If high-speed trains worked so well in the 1960s and 1980s, there is every chance that they will work just as well in today’s developing economies, especially as the technology is far more affordable now, while financing for sustainable transportation infrastructure projects is now offered by a variety of international financiers such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

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Turkish transport authorities have been considering a high-speed rail system since the early 2000s, especially given the specific geopolitical circumstances of Türkiye: a country with an elongated shape wedged between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, with over 1,500 kilometers from the eastern borders to the western tip.

An affordable mode of transport for both cargo and passengers could close the gap in terms of development between the more affluent western parts and the underprivileged central Anatolia and eastern edges of the country.

By the end of 2023, Türkiye was operating some 1,000 kilometers of high-speed rails, locally known as Yuksek Hizli Tren (YHT). Türkiye’s YHT trains run at speeds higher than 150 km/h and often up to 250 km/h.

Thanks to the high-speed tracks laid in 2014, travel time between Istanbul and the capital Ankara was reduced to around 4 hours, down from over six and a half hours previously.

In the latest addition, the Ankara-Sivas high-speed railway was inaugurated in 2023, effectively connecting Istanbul to central Anatolia.

Saudi Arabia
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The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been investing in all things modern since 2016. No matter how you define the word “modern,” high-speed trains will fit the criteria.

Since 2018, the Haramain High Speed Railway has been running from the holy city of Mecca to Medina, some 420 kilometers further north. Traveling at the speed of 300 km/h, the train service also passes through the kingdom’s economic heart, Jeddah, and the newly built King Abdullah Economic City on the Red Sea coast.

The rolling stock and trains have been provided by the Spanish train manufacturer Talgo. While the fleet currently includes 36 trains, new orders are routinely placed for additional locomotives and carriages.

The capital Riyadh will also be within the high speed network soon. As of 2024, feasibility studies are underway to expand a line from Riyadh to Dammam, located 450 kilometers to the east of the capital, which will reduce the traveling time to just one hour and a quarter.

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Since the construction of the first railroads in India in the 1850s, train travel has become an iconic part of the Indian way of life. Trains are an ideal mode of transportation for a large, populous, and developing country.

However, traveling by train can also be extremely tedious in a country the size of India. The famous Mumbai-Chennai Central Express, which has been operational for over a century, has an average journey time of 22 hours, even when traveling at its top speed of nearly 100 km/h.

That journey time will hopefully soon drop to less than half, as India has been studying the feasibility of eight high-speed tracks, including between Mumbai and Chennai.

As of early 2024, however, there is only one high-speed railway under construction: Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Corridor (MAHSR). The project will be fully operational by 2027, with train services traveling the 500-kilometer route at the speed of 350 km/h.

The fast line will reduce traveling time from upward of seven hours to just two hours.

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In Southeast Asia, meanwhile, Indonesia has been pursuing its own high-speed train project, which came to a climax in late 2023 with the inauguration of the country’s first truly high-speed railway. The—appropriately named—Woosh train service began its operation in October, 2023, linking the capital Jakarta to the West Javan city of Bandung.

The rolling stock and fleet are provided by the Chinese electric train manufacturer, Fuxing, which has supplied a large percentage of China’s own high-speed rolling stock.

The rail tracks and trainsets are designed for the nominal speed of 420 km/h, although the service currently runs at 350 km/h.

The Woosh project came with a whopping price tag of USD7.3 billion. Given the 150-kilometer distance between Jakarta and Bandung, this translates into a cost of over USD50 million per kilometer. However, it is estimated that in longer lines, the cost of building high-speed tracks in Indonesia can be lowered to USD20-30 million per kilometer due to economies of scale.

Since 2016, there have been talks about a proposed 600-kilometer high-speed railroad between Jakarta and the East Javan city of Surabaya, though the project is fraught with complications and has been put on hold for the time being.

However, if implemented, the line will connect the east and west of the island of Java, which will hugely facilitate transportation across Indonesia. Indeed, as Java is a long island, an efficient train service can do wonders in solving the nation’s transportation problems.

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In Central Asia, Uzbekistan is yet another nation with an ambitious high-speed train project. Uzbekistan Railways is already operating 600 kilometers of high-speed tracks.

Since 2011, a high-speed service called Afrosiyob has been running between the capital Tashkent and the major city of Samarkand to the southwest. The service is operating at the average speed of 250 km/h.

While the rails are upgraded conventional Russian gauge lines, the rolling stock have been purchased from the Spanish provider, Talgo.

The demand for the Afrosiyob tickets has been so high that Uzbekistan Railways has constantly been working on capacity expansion. In 2018, a USD60 million order was placed with Talgo for two additional 11-car trains, which entered service in 2021.

Currently, the country is working on another high-speed track between the culturally significant cities of Bukhara and Khiva, which can also boost the nation’s tourism sector into the bargain.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has approved a USD108 million loan for the project, which can speed up the construction. If all goes according to plan, the service between Bukhara and Khiva will be up and running by 2024.