San Miguel mulls bullet train project
() - March 26, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - San Miguel Corp. (SMC) has set its sights on what could probably be its most ambitious and expensive project to date as it spearheads the Philippines’ bid to become the first country in Southeast Asia to build and operate a bullet train.

SMC president and CEO Ramon Ang told The STAR that they have commissioned a group that includes international companies with experience in bullet trains to study the possibility of building a bullet train railway that will run from the north to the south end of Luzon.

As planned, the bullet train railway will run the Laoag-Manila-Bicol route. As for the right-of-way acquisitions, Ang said this will be up to the government.

He revealed that they hope to submit their unsolicited proposal to government by the end of the year.

SMC’s top executive expressed optimism about the possibilities that this venture will present to the country’s tourism industry. “We want to help tourism. If nobody dared, we will,” he said in an interview. A high-speed train service is also expected to help boost not only tourism but also the economy in general.

Travel from Manila to Laoag takes around 12 hours by land. The Philippine National Railways (PNR) has a train service that runs the Manila-Bicol route – the Bicol Express which carries as much as 20,000 passengers daily – although it has not been operational for three years due to heavy damage wrought by typhoons. There are plans to resume operations before President Arroyo’s term ends.

Both the Manila to Laoag and Manila to Bicol lines are also currently accessible by air and there are public buses that ply the two routes.

Running speeds of as fast as 300 kilometers per hour, a bullet train can cut travel time to the far ends of Luzon from Manila significantly. Fares are also expected to be cheaper than plane fares but higher than bus fares.

With SMC’s plan, the Philippines will be pitted against Vietnam in the bid to build Southeast Asia’s first bullet train.

The Vietnam project is estimated to cost $56 million and may choose either the group of Sumitomo Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, or Itochu Corp. and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd, all Japanese companies, for the project. The two groups currently run lines in Japan similar to what would be built in Vietnam.

Vietnam is said to be favoring Japanese technology for the 1,555-kilometer Hanoi-to-Ho Chi Minh City line as Vietnam “is geographically similar to Japan with not enough land and too many people, and a long coastal line,” Nguyen Huu Bang, chair and CEO of Vietnam Railways Corp., was quoted as saying.

The Nomura Research Institute has helped with initial studies for the project, and Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will fund a feasibility study that will start in June, Vietnam Railways said.

Work on the Vietnam bullet train line is due to start in 2012, with services beginning on the first section by 2020. The high-speed train will probably be financed by a mix of overseas development aid, state funding and public-private partnerships.

A ticket for the full Hanoi-to-HCM City high-speed rail journey may cost about 75 percent of the average current plane fare, Bang said.

China is also working on building high-speed trains to support its surging economy. The country in December opened a high-speed rail link of more than 1,000 kilometers between the cities of Guangzhou and Wuhan.

Back in 2004, South Korea became the second Asian nation after Japan to build a high-speed train service between major cities.

The Tokaido Shinkansen, connecting Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka  was inaugurated in 1964 as the first shinkansen (high speed train or bullet train line) and the world’s first high speed train service. At that time the trains already ran at about 200 km/h. Nowadays they reach speeds of 300 km/h.

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