Rials into rails in Iran (part 1): the Tehran-Shiraz ‘Nour’ sleeper

Everywhere you go in Iran, it seems, Imam Khomeini is there. A portrait of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary Supreme Leader occupies rial banknotes, murals of his unsmiling face adorn the sides of buildings, and in hotels and public buildings his image hovers over you in the background. So too on approaching Tehran’s railway station, where having exited the Rahahan metro stop, Imam Khomeini (alongside current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) looms over the square and flanks the double doors that lead into the station.

Tehran Railway Station.

Tehran Railway Station.

Departure and arrival boards at Tehran Railway Station (with the English side unnervingly blank)

Departure and arrival boards at Tehran Railway Station (with the English side reassuringly blank)

After a couple of days in Tehran, I had arrived to take the 15-hour ‘Nour’ sleeper service from the hustle-and-bustle of Iran’s capital to its Shiraz, one of its historical capitals, in Iran’s southwest (see ticket booking details at the bottom of the post). Foreign travellers are required to check in at a passport counter to the left of the ticket checkpoint, where one’s visa and entry stamp are scrutinised and recorded – a privilege accorded to train travel, rather than the intercity coaches. A cursory mark is made on the ticket, and I am allowed to proceed through the checkpoint and its QR scanner. In the next hall a rather colourful mural in an otherwise functional environment exudes industrial might and power: wheels, tracks, locomotives, wrapped in the Iranian flag with Tehran’s iconic Azadi Tower as its backdrop.


Industrial power.


Line 5 for the Shiraz-bound ‘Nour’.

A passage leads out to the gantry that runs above the tracks, and then it is down to the platforms where staff check, check and check again tickets. On the train, manufactured in 2011 by the Changchun Railway Vehicles Co. of China, I find my way to the compartment, and what follows is a revelation. This is no tired European CityNightLine couchette, but a compartment with wide seats, each with its own upholstered armrests. In this four-berth that I travel on, what would otherwise be the middle seat becomes a fold-down table that is laden with a range of packeted snacks and a teacup – my first encounter with what would be a recurring sight of snack packs during other train and bus trips in Iran.

A rather classy touch is the patterned carpet a la a Persian rug that lines the corridor and compartment floor, although the purple-and-cream design of the bedsheet and pillowcases, less so. All for the grand price of 845,000 Iranian rials (about €24). The frequency of passenger services leaves something to be desired – there is just the one overnight train from Tehran to Shiraz (although a new, ‘luxury’ train, the ‘Fadak’, now also plies this route on alternate days) – but there can be few complaints about their affordability (for the foreign visitor) and comfort.

Roasted peanuts, muffin, wafer biscuits, juice box, tea...what else do you need?

Roasted peanuts, muffin, wafer biscuits, juice box, tea…what else do you need?

Patterns on the Nour: bedsheets and corridors

Patterns on the Nour: bedsheets and corridors

The Chinese-made sleeper compartment. The bed drops down from above, and between each seat is a drop-down table.

The Chinese-made sleeper compartment. The bed drops down from above, and between each seat is a drop-down table.

At precisely 4.20pm, a whistle blew and the train began to slowly make its way out of Tehran. The main compartment windows of the train are lightly tinted (I suppose especially necessary for the bright glare of the desert sands), but it has the effect of turning what is already an orange-and-red colour palette of stunning landscape even oranger and redder. The carriage guard comes around with a flask of hot water to fill up the teacup, and soon I am sipping away on a cup of black tea as the desert and mountains zip by. My companions for this journey, taking up two of the other seats, leaving one unoccupied, were a young husband and wife on their way home to Shiraz, one of whom spoke enough English to have a decent conversation, and would serve as my de facto translator for the rest of the journey. Like a good many other Iranians I came across, they were somewhat mystified by the idea of solo travel in a foreign land (I must come back and visit again when I get married, I was often told).

A flatscreen TV in the compartment (together with built-in audio, as well as headphone ports) plays a movie about a mute boy who is bullied a little and tries to run away from his family. It is always a pleasant surprise when you can understand enough of a movie in a foreign language, simply through the gestures and physical movement – so much so that when this exact movie appeared a week later on a coach between Esfahan and Yazd, I happily watched all of it again.

Outside Tehran, after a little bit of rain.

Two hours out of Tehran, after a little bit of rain.

Dinner takes place in the restaurant car. I’m not offered a huge range of options: ‘chicken and rice’ or ‘chicken pieces and rice’, but I suspect that Farsi speakers can explore the full capabilities of the kitchen. In any case, the extravagantly sized grilled chicken leg that appears before me is plenty to fill me up, washed down with a cup of doogh, the sour-and-salty yoghurt drink that I rather came to enjoy. 125,000 rials (or about €3.60 later), it is getting late and nearly time for bed. Lying in the darkness, with only the universal sound of Candy Crush from one of my new friends’ phone softly beeping away, my ears are gently popping too as the train climbs into and across the Zagros mountain range that slices across Iran’s southwest.

Dinner (which was much better than this photo suggests, by which time the chicken leg had been buried under rice)

Dinner (which was much better than this photo suggests, by which time the chicken leg had been buried under rice)

Tehran to Shiraz (via Google Maps)

Tehran to Shiraz (via Google Maps)

Dawn, near Shiraz.

Dawn, near Shiraz.

A little before 6.30am, knocks on the door from the guard serve as the wake-up call – just in time too, to greet the orange sky of the dawn that once again turns the desert grassland alight. And a few minutes after 7am, bang on schedule, the train grinds to a halt at the Shiraz railway terminus, completing its 900km+ journey from Tehran. This station is some distance out of the town, but a flood of yellow taxis await. My newfound friends give me a lift into the suburbs, where we part ways and I hop into a different taxi into the city centre proper. (I think a taxi from the railway station will be in the range of €13, or 450,000 rials). One of the clichés of travel can sometimes be about how friendly locals are to visitors, but I have never thought it to be true-er than in my two weeks in Iran. They generously offer to meet me later in the evening to show me around a little around their hometown, an offer which I am happy to take up – but that is a story for another time.

900 kilometers later, this Siemens locomotive comes to a stop.

900 kilometers later, this Siemens locomotive comes to a stop.


Disembarking at Shiraz.


The iranrail.net website.

The iranrail.net website.

(Planning note: this ticket was booked through iranrail.net, which was a very straightforward process, with payment via PayPal. At time of booking and writing, TripAdvisor comments were somewhat mixed on their efficiency and delivery (there is also a clause, which is slightly unnerving to the traveller used to some modicum of certainty in making long-distance travel plans, in their t&c’s about defining ‘on time’ ticket delivery as anytime up to three hours before departure, failing which a refund is made). When I hadn’t received the pdf ticket after a week, I wrote to them via their website. Their response via SMS, however, was very quick in saying that there had been some issues with sending tickets to hotmail addresses, and once I provided a different email address I received the correct ticket within the hour. They do charge a €6 service fee, which seems entirely reasonable and I would have no reservations about making advance bookings through them, bearing in mind a little patience).

Part 2, a report of the Kashan-Tehran ‘Pardis’ fast train, as well as some notes on the Tehran Metro, will follow in a week. See a previous train trip report, 24 hours on the Bangkok-Butterworth International Express. All photos (except the Google Maps and iranrail.net screenshots) by Nick Chan.

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Strategies of ratification and the Paris Agreement

Ahead of the high-level signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement, which opens on April 22 for signature in New  York, attention has been turning to progress in terms of ratification and entry into force of the Agreement. A little bit of fuss (see also here) has also been kicked up by a memo from think-tank Third World Network, which urges developing countries to ‘wait this year’ and not ‘rush into signing’ the Paris Agreement.

Their memo presents a series of arguments for doing so, namely in terms of maintaining ‘political leverage’ in interim negotiations prior to entry into force, where outstanding issues from the Paris conference are still to be agreed:

“Not signing now keeps the pressure up on developed countries to deliver on their promises and to leverage the outcomes and positions that are vital for developing countries in meeting their obligations under the PA.”

It’s an interesting and important point, evoking memories of the long-delayed entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol, which after US withdrawal, depended on Russian ratification, which was not finalised until November 2004, three years after the conclusion of the Marrakesh Accords and seven after the Protocol itself. Russia’s delayed ratification had a fairly straightforward strategic logic, namely in its linkage to European support for Russia’s World Trade Organisation membership. Indeed, adoption of the Marrakesh Accords was itself dependent on other industrialised countries naming their price for ratification, as the Earth Negotiations Bulletin recounts:

“In the knowledge that their participation was essential for entry into force of the Protocol, the Russian Federation, Japan, Australia, and Canada used this leverage – both collectively and individually – to drive down the “price” of ratification. Playing the ratification card on a number of occasions, they sought to weaken the compliance system, lower the eligibility requirements for mechanisms, undermine opportunities for public participation and transparency, and minimize requirements for providing information on sinks.”

Accordingly, non-ratification as a tool to secure bargaining leverage should be a fairly unsurprising situation.

After Paris, there is still a rather long list of ‘to-dos’, as this list from the UNFCCC Secretariat details. In addition, there are a series of ongoing processes under the regular Convention institutions, as well as the parallel progress of the Green Climate Fund’s capitalisation and disbursement processes. Some of the work resulting from 1/CP.21 has been delegated to a new sub-group of the UNFCCC, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA), and the TWN memo notes the selection of officers (and the system of doing so) at the upcoming May UNFCCC session as one of its first tasks, which is always politically contentious. The TWN memo also goes on to cite specific pending forthcoming deadlines on loss and damage, technology transfer and the provision of finance by developed countries.

As a result, an interesting guidepost might be to look at the pattern and speed of ratifications experienced with the Kyoto Protocol. The following figure divides the period since 1997 into four phases: from the signing ceremony to COP7, where the Marrakesh Accords were completed; from the Marrakesh accords to Russian ratification in November 2004; from Russian ratification to the first meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in November 2005; and since CMP1.

Source data: unfccc.int

Source data: unfccc.int

This division in the sequencing of KP ratifications leads to a few observations, which may be of relevance today:

  • A sizeable number of countries ratified the KP prior to Marrakesh (43) – but twice this number (83) signed the KP during the year from 1998-1999 that it was open for signature in New York. Signatures are a signal of intent, but ratifications are what matter. The 55th ratification (one of two thresholds to bring the KP into force) did not take place until mid-2002, and signatories to the KP included four countries that were to cause a lot of later grief to the KP’s fortunes: the United States, Canada, Russia and Australia. (Incidentally, the first countries to ratify the KP were small, vulnerable ones (Fiji, Antigua and Barbuda, and Tuvalu), much like the first ones to ratify the PA – Fiji, Palau and the Marshall islands).
  • Most ratifications came between 2001 and 2004, i.e. after the Marrakesh Accords were concluded (and of these, most were made in 2002, immediately following Marrakesh). This makes broad sense, because Marrakesh was the point at which many uncertain issues were finally resolved, especially surrounding the KP’s accounting rules, calculations for land-use, and the Clean Development Mechanism. Now, of the numerous elements outstanding from Paris, those related to the new market mechanisms and transparency stand out as being the most contentious that will take more than one negotiating session to resolve. I find it hard to imagine that in particular, those countries that have indicated a use for international market mechanisms in their INDC/NDC pledges will ratify the PA prior to gaining substantial clarity over these new mechanisms.
  • A sizeable number of countries (30) ratified in the one year between the Russian ratification and CMP1/COP11 in Montreal (of which noteworthy ratifications included Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, the UAE, Kuwait and Iran). The obvious explanation is that the particular timing of this was in order to participate fully in the CMP as Parties to the Protocol, which they would not have been able to do so otherwise. I would expect that the TWN ‘wait and see’ advice on signing the Paris Agreement would change in the (what I think is unlikely) event of the Paris Agreement entering into force within the next year, in order to be full Parties to the PA when its first Meeting of Parties convenes, because any bargaining leverage that ensues from withheld ratification would no longer exist.

Of course, the past is not the future, and the purpose of the Paris Agreement is, after all, to establish a new political framework different to that of the past and enable action with far greater urgency than hitherto seen. In recent days, the US and China jointly announced their intention to sign the PA at the April 22 signing ceremony, followed by India (although its minister was quoted as saying ‘ratify’). All of the above of what I’ve said may be proved wrong very shortly.

But while the signing ceremony matters as a political event, for a collective high-level reaffirmation of the commitments made in Paris and to maintain the sense of momentum, I can’t help but think that it is a bit of a red herring. What ultimately matters for entry into force of the Paris Agreement is ratifications, not signatures. Rather than getting all excited about its entry into force (even this year), the slow progress in ratifying the KP’s Doha Amendment – now approaching four years since adoption – should also provide a cautionary experience. Ratification is not just a procedural exercise, and the TWN memo usefully highlights the substantive hurdles that are still there to be negotiated in fully elaborating the Paris climate architecture.

This post was re-posted on 7 April 2016 at ClimateHome, and on 12 April 2016 in Chinese at ChinaDialogue

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Postcards: The League of Nations lives on in Addis Ababa

High up in the dome of Addis Ababa’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, two murals depict the Ascension and the Second Coming, the latter, complete with a green horned devil and flames licking upwards to surround the masses. Below the dome, a semicircular lunette presents the Crucifixion. At the moment of my visit, the late afternoon light slants through the cupola windows to strike Jesus’ figure on the Cross, and light up the bright vivid colours that so characterise Ethiopian Orthodox iconography.

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

The Crucifixion

What catches my eye, however, is the lunette opposite, where rows of desks of suited men recede towards a dais of a further three suited men. Amidst the sacred – the cathedral windows are also filled with some rather splendid stained glass of biblical scenes – this decidedly secular scene forces a pause. Upon seeing the puzzled look on my face, the cathedral guide tells me, matter-of-factly: “That? That’s the League of Nations”.

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Most visitors to the cathedral are drawn to the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, just a few feet away in a side alcove, in imposing Aksum-cross-shaped granite sarcophagi. While Selassie died in 1975, a year after being deposed, he was not entombed here until 2000, in the cathedral whose construction he had initiated. Outside, the cathedral grounds contain monuments to war heroes and other Ethiopian luminaries – among others, English suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and former prime minister Meles Zenawi.

In history books everywhere, the League of Nations is labelled as a ‘failed’ project of the 1919-39 inter-war period, an expression of both the potential and limits of Wilsonian liberal internationalism. Near the top of its catalogue of failings, if not at the top itself, was its impotence in halting Mussolini’s 1935 annexation of Ethiopia – or rather, Abyssinia, as it was known then. League sanctions were limited in their scope, and even then were not fully implemented by the other ‘great powers’. At the same time, France and Britain were hatching the secret Hoare-Laval Pact that would have partitioned Abyssinia and kept Italy on side against Hitler’s growing ambitions.

So what is particularly striking, and forces me to linger for a moment, is its commemoration especially here, in the cathedral whose completion Selassie had overseen in 1944, just a couple of years after his return from exile and the liberation of his kingdom from the Italian occupiers. Why would Selassie choose to depict an institution that he had hoped, upon Abyssinia’s accession in 1923, would protect its precious independence from colonial designs?

In the left of the mural, Selassie is standing addressing the League in June 1936, a king without a kingdom after having to flee to England via British Palestine and Gibraltar. His plaintive ‘Appeal to the League of Nations Assembly’ is the epitome of the hopes vested in international organization in the tussle between order imposed through force and the justice of sovereign equality:

“I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of Italian aggression…It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations. It is the confidence that each State is to place in international treaties. It is the value of promises made to small States that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and ensured. It is the principle of the equality of States on the one hand, or otherwise the obligation laid upon small Powers to accept the bonds of vassal ship. In a word, it is international morality that is at stake…

“…Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom.”

His New York Times obituary described this speech as “was a moment in history that few who witnessed it ever forgot”, but all for naught, with the Italian fait accompli gradually being recognised by the great powers and other League members.

On the throne of justice: see no Abyssinia, hear no Abyssinia, speak no Abyssinia”. David Low, Evening Standard, 24 July 1935


A couple of days before, in the hills immediately surrounding Aksum, in Ethiopia’s north (of which more in a different post), my guide had been keen to point out the jagged line of hills in the distance where the Battle of Adwa had been fought in 1896 (and beyond which lies Eritrea). There, the Abyssinian army successfully beat off the Italian offensive, forcing an Italian retreat and Italy’s recognition of Abyssinia’s sovereignty in the Treaty of Addis Ababa, a rare military success against a European colonial power by a non-Western state. As every taxi driver and guide I encountered during my weeklong stay was keen to impress on me, Ethiopia was the only African country to resist European colonisation and preserve its independence, an achievement made possible by Adwa.

View towards the Adwa mountain range, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

View towards Adwa, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

Forty years later, that sovereignty was again challenged with the force of arms by Italy, with Mussolini’s empire-building ambitions in Africa also determined to erase the humiliation of Adwa. Even though the League had seemed to fail Abyssinia’s expectations, perhaps even after defeat and exile Selassie still deemed his vision of collective security and international sovereign equality to be crucial to Abyssinia’s continuing survival. The inauspicious circumstances in which he pronounced them at the League in Geneva were, perhaps, secondary to embedding them in the national narrative via a mural at the centre of the Ethiopian church. These principles remain necessary, the mural seems to say, for how else are small states to be anything other than the playthings of the great powers?

In 1963, Selassie was to return to this theme in his address to the United Nations – part of which became the lyrics to Bob Marley’s ‘War’. With the decolonization movement in full swing, Selassie had just hosted the first meeting of the Organization for African Unity in Addis, drawing on Ethiopia’s special history of independence from external interference to urge pan-African regional unity. At the UN, Selassie decried continued colonial exploitation and (not unusually for an imperial autocrat of the time) professed the equality of all mankind, challenging the nations gathered at the General Assembly to possess the will to act:

“The goal of the equality of man which we seek is the antithesis of the exploitation of one people by another with which the pages of history and in particular those written of the African and Asian continents, speak at such length. Exploitation, thus viewed, has many faces. But whatever guise it assumes, this evil is to be shunned where it does not exist and crushed where it does. It is the sacred duty of this Organization to ensure that the dream of equality is finally realized for all men to whom it is still denied, to guarantee that exploitation is not reincarnated in other forms in places whence it has already been banished.”


The coda to this train of thought that began with a glance towards the dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral came rather unexpectedly a few weeks later, while in Geneva for a conference at the Palais des Nations, the League’s physical home. Transferred to the UN after the League’s dissolution, the Palais is a glorious Art Deco pile completed in early 1936, just months before Selassie’s appearance before the League Assembly.

Up on the wall of Salle XXII, a mural titled ‘Construttori’ by Massimo Campigli depicts men at work during the laborious construction of the Palais. This ‘building’ of the League of Nations was one of the great experiments in global governance of the interwar period, but swept away by countervailing political forces of the 1930s. Small irony then, that far from Geneva, the League’s imprint is still to be visibly found in the sacred space of the one country where it was tested, and found lacking.

'Costruttori' (1937), Massimo Campigli, Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

‘Costruttori’ (partial view), Massimo Campigli (1937), Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

All pictures (apart from the David Low cartoon) by Nick Chan.

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French diplomacy, the Paris Agreement, and the structural power of the COP President

“He got a decent deal and everyone said they liked him”, was ClimateHome’s pithy assessment of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 climate summit in Paris. Other reports concurred, praising France’s successful management of the final days and hours of the summit to bring COP21 to a close with the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

“Mr Fabius and the formidable French diplomatic machine steered the conference to a successful conclusion”, said the FT, while others highlighted the personal investment of time through the many visits that Fabius had made to China, India and Saudi Arabia to build trust and confidence. Laurence Tubiana, France’s ambassador and envoy for climate change appointed by Fabius to steer the French diplomatic effort, also received a name check, as did France’s network of foreign missions spread throughout the world and their public outreach in the year leading up to COP21.

This due attention to the role of the French chairmanship and presidency of the conference, however, highlights an interesting and curious feature of this UNFCCC intergovernmental negotiating process, where the conference host holds a privileged and pivotal political position in directing the final outcome of the meeting. (This probably seems utterly self-evident and unremarkable to others who follow the process – but which I think is reason to step back for a moment). 

COP21 President Laurent Fabius brings down his green gavel. Photo via 'COP Paris' flickr, public domain.

COP21 President Laurent Fabius brings down his green gavel. Photo via flickr.com/photos/cop21/, public domain.

The authority to propose
In a previous post I wrote about how it is not parties who ultimately ‘hold the pen’ in actually drafting and writing the final outcomes, but the chair. At the annual COP meetings where the most contentious issues are finalised, this task is handed over to the conference host, who is then responsible for producing proposals that serve as final compromises acceptable to all, presented as a package.

The ‘authority to propose’ that the COP President possesses is a distinct form of power – agenda-setting power, to set the terms of the debate. The COP President has the discretion to propose and experiment with the methods of work that influence the character and content of discussions – such as the in-session indabas at COP21, tasking small spin-off groups, or appointing facilitators; or larger scheduling decisions, notably such as front-loading the COP21 Leader’s Event for Paris, as opposed to the previous back-end practice that puts it in sync with the normal high-level ministerial segment. While all parties have, of course, the ability to make proposals at any time, the COP President is endowed with a special legitimacy to do so.

It is, in short, a role of considerable structural importance in understanding the way in which the UNFCCC process delivers its outcomes to govern intergovernmental action on climate change. It is from the COP President where judgements about which pronounced ‘red lines’ are the ones that really matter to induce agreement, where the political effort to broker, cajole (and even coerce) acceptance of an agreement is made, and where the all-important decision on when to bring the final gavel down, and declare a consensus, is made.

None of the three iterations of the draft Paris Agreement presented by the French during the final week were ‘put on the screen’ for a line-by-line resolution of brackets and options. Instead, after comments aired and further revisions suggested by parties, returned to the black box of the French presidency to make the judgement about what to change, and presented afresh for further rinse-and-repeating.

This method of work is, for better or worse, the current social practice, part and parcel of the negotiating culture of the UNFCCC process. Indeed, the intervention of the COP President in making that compromise proposal is anticipated at the outset, leaving countries often unwilling to budge from their positions in the ‘technical’ preparatory work. Unlike many other travelling multilateral conferences that journey beyond the seats of their secretariats, the COP Presidency is anything but a ceremonial role, requiring a considerable political investment by the host country.

A “Proposal by the President”


Deep pockets
And yet, at the same time, this pivotal political role is one for which the first criteria is a logistical one: whether that country can comfortably host a conference of 10,000+ attendees (as in ‘normal’ recent years), or more like 30,000+ for marquee years such as 2015. The UNFCCC secretariat estimates the cost of hosting a COP meeting at €35-150 million, which is entirely borne by the host country. France’s provisional budget for COP21 was €187m, which will have surely further increased with additional security measures after the November 13 attacks. Peru, the host of the COP20 meeting in Lima, needed a €5m contribution from the EU to host the meeting.

This logistical prerequisite rules out a vast number of countries from assuming the political leadership role of the COP President – certainly, at a minimum, no least developed country and most small island states. The result is that that moderately deep pockets, probably of at least being a middle-income country, are required to host the COP in order to be able to exercise that political, agenda-setting discretion on what kind of agreement to propose. There is a quite profound inequality of opportunity going on here.

From working group chair to COP President
It is worth dwelling on this misfit between logistical capability and political opportunity for a couple of reasons. The first is that this is not a element of the UNFCCC process that has always been around, but part of its evolution at some point in the past 15 years of negotiations. In reflecting on the Paris Agreement’s significance, it is notable that in the agreement of its predecessor, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Japanese hosts of the conference were broadly absent from the cut-and-thrust final phase of negotiations. Instead, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Berlin Mandate was chaired throughout its entire 1995-1997 lifespan by Raul Estrada-Oyuela of Argentina, and whose judgement and nerve in gavelling through agreement of key areas of contention receives regular mention in the academic literature

Similarly, the Framework Convention on Climate Change itself was agreed at the final meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in May 1992, such that the document was closed in advance of the Rio Earth Summit itself. The INC had been presided over throughout only by Jean Ripert of France, with no conference ‘host’ to turn to, as the INC, had been generally hosted at various UN conference hubs.

By contrast, after handing over their working document mid-way through COP21 that they had shepherded through four-and-a-half negotiating meetings in 2015, the two co-chairs of the Durban Platform AWG, Ahmed Djoghlaf and Dan Reifsnyder, the final pair in the merry-go-round of ADP co-chairs, were largely absent from the podium and public eye.

At some point in the past 15 years, there has been a distinct transfer of authority from the working group chairman to the COP President.

Intergovernmental arrangements
The second is that this dual-role of both logistical host and political broker is up for discussion in the next couple of years, recognising the intensive demands of hosting the COP. Under the jargon-banner of ‘intergovernmental arrangements’, a slow-burning SBI discussion on the organisation of the COP that has been going for the past few years will now look to be more intensively addressed, following the shift into an ‘implementation’ phase of work as opposed to full-blown political negotiations culminating in the Paris Agreement.

(This segment of discussions is also looking at when the COP President is elected, a procedure normally undertaken at the beginning of the COP. This election means, however, that the incoming COP President actually has no formal role in the meetings preceding the COP – as in all of 2015 up to the beginning of COP21 for France – when a lot of the political expectations and potential areas of compromise are actually being socialised).

One of the more interesting possibilities being mooted (another idea is a shift to biennial rather than annual COPs) is to divorce the hosting responsibilities from the political position of the COP presidency. This would see COPs being rotated between host countries and the UNFCCC’s conference facilities in Bonn, Germany – which would allow for a country to take on the role of the COP President without the commensurate logistical demands. (see para.38-44 of this SBI42 document). Could one of the ‘particularly vulnerable’ small countries thus find themselves holding the pen and being responsible for the gavel, hitherto an impossibility?

(In fact, this has happened twice before, inadvertently – COP2 was supposed to be hosted by Uruguay (21/CP.1), but it later withdrew and Zimbabwe served as the president for COP2, which was convened in Geneva; Jordan initially offered to host COP5 in 1999, but also later withdrew (see para.12 of the SBI10 report), and Poland served as the president for COP5, which was convened in Bonn).

The ADP is dead, long live the APA
In the meantime, until a decision is made, the travelling COP continues, on to Marrakesh in November 2016, and the Asia-Pacific the following year. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform will now be replaced by the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement, in all likelihood with a protracted argument over chairing arrangements similar to that experienced by the ADP at its first session in June 2012. These chairs will guide further tricky details that still need to be agreed on (set out in 1/CP.21) to be able to implement the Paris Agreement when it enters into force. The real hotseat, however, to broker agreement and maintain momentum on climate action, will continue to be that of the COP Presidency. And to take on that role, first, host the COP.

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‘Climate security’ and developing country voices

“The impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress”, said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a major set of remarks on climate change and security. Emphasising the threat that climate impacts poses to US national security and broader global peace and stability, Kerry said:

“[T]he reason I have made climate change a priority in my current role as Secretary of State is not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment. It’s because – by fueling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world – climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and, indeed, to the security and stability of countries everywhere.

“…when we talk about the impacts of climate change, we’re not just up against some really serious ecological challenges. We also have to prepare ourselves for the potential social and political consequences that stem from crop failures, water shortages, famine, outbreaks of epidemic disease, which we saw a near brush with Ebola in three African countries last year. And we have to heighten our national security readiness to deal with the possible destruction of vital infrastructure and the mass movement of refugees, particularly in parts of the world that already provide fertile ground for violent extremism and terror.”

The portrayal of climate change as a security challenge – or in academic terms, the ‘securitisation’ of climate change – is not new. The ‘threat multiplier’ language has been around for much of the past decade, the UN Security Council has held two debates on climate change (in 2007 and earlier this year), and the socioeconomic consequences of drought as a trigger to the Syrian phase of the Arab Spring (and what descended into civil war) is being increasingly noted. There is a lot of talk about ‘greening’ military operations, about the qualitative changes that might be wrought for military missions, implications for ‘other’, conventional efforts at addressing climate change, especially adaptation and resilience-building efforts, and so on.

What does seem new – as an on-off observer of this debate – is not the character of the argument, but who is making it. The novel recent development is not Kerry’s comments (even if there was a very interesting climate mainstreaming announcement about convening a “task force of senior government officials to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities”), or the welter of reports examining the various aspects of climate security agenda.

Instead, it is the engagement of defence ministries from developing countries on this subject that is the interesting new development. While many of the cases cited as signs of the clear and present need to think of climate change in security terms – Syria, Nigeria, Darfur, etc. – are obviously in developing countries (but not all, cf. the Arctic), the broad argument has not been principally made by Southern voices. Many of these linkages and ‘securitising acts’ have, rather, been led by US, European, and NATO officials and politicians, and by thinktanks and research efforts in developed countries such as CNAS and Chatham House. I interned at the Royal United Services Institute in London for a few months in 2009 on exactly such a climate security project, a sign of how a very traditional, armed services-oriented British thinktank was trying to dip its toe into these waters of the ‘new security’ agenda.

This rarity of having developing country policymakers active in this climate security debates was highlighted by a recent conference in mid-October hosted by France ahead of the COP21 Paris conference, ‘Climat et Défense : quels enjeux?’ – which caught my eye because defence officials from developing countries were indeed participants. There was fairly minimal reporting of this meeting (see VOA here and IISD here), but what is of interest for the moment is who was there: defence ministers from Ghana, Niger, Haiti, Chad, Morocco, Gabon, and the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security (in addition to representation from ‘usual suspects’ of France, UK, Italy and Spain).

Here’s Ghana’s defence minister, Benjamin Kunbuor (bringing to mind David King’s very early contribution on climate change being a greater threat than terrorism):

“Terrorism is significant, but naked hunger is as significant as terrorism,” he said. “And the relationship between terrorist activities and naked hunger are obvious. If you look at the vectors of recruitment into terrorist cells, most of the most vulnerable are hunger-prone areas.”

Roundtable on ‘Extreme Climate Events and Human Security’, at the ‘Climat et défense : quels enjeux?’ conference, 14 October 2015. Photo via defense.gouv.fr

The type of linkage being made is itself now new, trying to sketch the causal chain between climate impacts, scarcity, stability and potential conflict. What is new is when it is made by high-level policymakers in developing countries, especially from defence ministries and not the environment, forestry or energy departments that normally do the running on climate change. This sort of involvement can give climate action a different kind of traction in those countries, especially where climate issues may not be terribly well integrated into conventional ‘economic development’ planning and efforts.

Of course, too, such successful securitisation can have both positive and negative implications on how national response to climate change is structured. The language and political attention of ‘security’ may be offset by the militarisation of the issue and narrow security referents of ‘state’ rather than ‘human’ security. Bureaucracies may battle for budgets, and debate over the relative assessment of ‘risk’ within a society may have its own competitive rather than cooperative dynamics.

‘Climate security’ discourse is notable for having been largely championed by Western officialdom over the past decade. That defence and security establishments in precisely the countries on the frontlines of the impacts of a warming world are now publicly engaging with this subject may make it a more global conversation in the years to come.

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Notes from the climate talks: A party-driven, not party-written, process

One of the mantras of the UNFCCC universe is that the negotiating process should be “party-driven”, reflecting the primary role that the State Parties to the climate convention should have in shaping its outcomes. While this might seem obvious at first glance, much of this insistence arises from the experience of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, where closed-door meetings of a limited number of countries gave rise to criticism that the negotiating process that was far from transparent, inclusive, and genuinely multilateral, with the result that many countries did not feel that they ‘owned’ the negotiating outcomes. Over the four-year course of the Durban Platform (ADP) discussions intended to conclude at this December’s Paris COP21 conference, this ‘party-driven’ notion has been elaborated into a troika of principles on the conduct of the process: that the “process is Party-driven”; “built upon inputs from Parties”; and “that any outputs of the process will reflect such inputs from Parties.”

But while the ‘party-driven’-ness of the UNFCCC process is now a common refrain, what it doesn’t seem to imply is that the negotiating documents are necessarily ‘party-written’.

Instead, the dynamic that seems to be at work is a heavy reliance on the hand of the chairs and facilitators to do a lot of the actual drafting in cobbling paragraphs together: the co-chairs produce a draft document, hear views and comments on this draft, then go back and make changes based on these comments, then produce a revised draft. Rinse and repeat until a draft acceptable to all is reached (on the inevitable Saturday after the scheduled Friday close of the conference).

Tracing the stages of the COP decision on the Durban Platform agreed at last year’s COP20 session in Lima illustrates this, as shown below. (A similar pattern is at work in previous years too.)

Drafting the Lima Call for Climate Action (1/CP.20)

Draft version

Date released



Pre-sessional draft












Presidential proposal, adopted as the Lima Call for Climate Action

There are a few things about this sequence that highlight interesting aspects of the negotiating process.

The first is that the judgement of the co-chairs becomes critical, in trying to produce a draft that contains an acceptable balance to all across all the proposed outcomes as a package. The term ‘landing zone’ is often used to describe the zone of agreement, but it is the co-chairs who set where the initial ‘touchdown’ point for ‘landing’ the draft is. There is a certain amount of space within which countries’ so-called ‘red-lines’ are respected (and seen to be respected), and once the co-chairs have a mandate from countries to produce a draft, as individual agents they have a tremendous amount of discretion, despite the best efforts of their principals (the countries) to place conditions and qualifies on the expected draft document.

But the co-chairs have this role on them because countries, left to their own devices, struggle to reach that compromise on their own. Discussions on the different thematic areas are necessarily fragmented, with different sections of the text being addressed simultaneously or in different rooms during breakout (or spin-off) meetings, and countries will be and have been reluctant to make compromises in one area of the text if they do not know or feel that reciprocal compromises are being made in other areas. The only way, it seems, to edge towards that landing zone is in the ‘big bang’ manner of having the co-chairs produce a single effort at compromise, so that countries can look at the document as a package in order to see that compromises have indeed been made across the whole document, where achieving only their second, third, or fourth-preferred options on some issues is balanced against realising some first preferences on other issues.

The second is that countries themselves only essentially tinker around the edges for particular phrases or words. For instance, a final huddle at the conclusion of the 2013 COP19 session in Warsaw, gave rise to the phrase ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, a phase in which countries now find themselves in the midst of. And of course, the Durban Platform’s mandate of possibly including ‘an agreed outcome with legal force’ was the result of another last-night(+1) huddle in 2011.

But while these edits in phrasing are indeed far-reaching, the basic structure and content of the draft documents is something that has come from the co-chairs’ keyboards. Interventions expressing views on bits of the text are made orally, written paragraphs are submitted – but rarely do the co-chairs seek to integrate proposed edits and revisions during the course of the meeting, instead preferring to collect all of them, let them stew, and then craft compromise language that rarely takes any one suggestion verbatim.

These observations seem relevant now because after three negotiating sessions in 2015, with two still to come before the adoption of the Paris agreement, the new documents proposed by the current co-chairs finally return the process to something back to this basic pattern.

Last December’s Lima conference, and the first session of this year in Geneva, were in effect giant brainstorming exercises, producing the ‘Geneva Negotiating Text’. The subsequent version, produced before the third session of this year in August (called a ‘tool’ by the co-chairs), began to try and sort through this jumble by separating things into three parts – for the draft legal agreement, draft accompanying COP decision, and other issues. This, however, was a largely organizational exercise that was necessarily limited by the understanding that no options would be lost from the text. In-sessions discussions at the June and August meetings, trying to grapple with both the GNT and the ‘tool’, faced the challenge of trying to manage the duplications, overlaps and incoherencies by trying to redraft, on an overhead screen, the compilation text down to something more readable, and not really succeeding in this respect.

The draft now proposed by the co-chairs now goes beyond this, presenting a document that is at least manageable for countries to track future changes and see the balance across to reach a conclusion that it is acceptable to them. The inevitable first question to be confronted in the forthcoming October Bonn session is ‘is this an acceptable basis for negotiation’? But beyond this, the theory for the road to the end of the Paris conference is thus much clearer – drafts are presented, comments are made, drafts are iterated.


While I am waxing on at length about process themes, two interesting little procedural innovations have also developed under the current co-chairs.

The first is the de facto expansion of the co-chairs team to include the facilitators for thematic issues. Part of this is a practical purpose to allow for parallel discussions to enable the entire document to be discussed relatively efficiently, a job that could not be done if it was simply chaired by the same two people. But part of it also serves to increase buy-in of the draft documents, by having a wider range of countries also collectively responsible (if only in an informal sense) for the next iteration of the draft proposals.

The co-chairs’ scenario note for the upcoming meeting, detailing the process by which they produced the current non-paper, highlights the back-and-forth with the facilitators, whose judgement about the potential landing zones for agreement then also becomes fairly influential in shaping the iterated draft documents. ‘Yes, this is under our responsibility’, the co-chairs seem to be saying, ‘but we have not done this all on our own’.

The second is the emergence of a ‘heads of delegation consultation’ with the co-chairs, a new kind of meeting introduced at the conclusion of the August session, which the chairs now indicate will be convened as necessary at the next session, and certainly before the final closing plenary. I suspect that this setting is probably intended to clarify and settle procedural issues about the how work is conducted during and after the session, and not have these arguments in plenary or simply in bilateral consultations.

Any institutional setting evolves its own culture and norms about its method of work, and the UNFCCC has had its own fair share of these, from ‘friends of the chair’ meetings to huddles. This new heads of delegation one is just the latest, and its usefulness remains to be seen.

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24 hours on the Bangkok-Butterworth ‘International Express’

I wonder if Paul Theroux ever saw something like this, I thought to myself.

Beneath my observation point on the mezzanine balcony, a scout and guide troop was assembling itself on the open expanse of Bangkok’s Hualamphong station floor. After some cajoling from the troop leaders, a few densely-packed lines were formed, followed by the instruction to plonk themselves down on the floor en masse.

Sipping at an iced black coffee in an desperate attempt to cope with the stuffy humidity, I watched as the troop then suddenly dispersed to swarm some of the vendors around the station concourse, leaving their backpacks behind in their quasi-orderly lines. A short while later, new snacks and drinks in tow, the troop reassembled in their lines, and were then marched off to their train.

The station floor was visible once again, with no trace remaining of the organized chaos that had occupied that space for the prior quarter of an hour.

Soon enough, it was time for me to take my own leave, to pass under the portrait of King Rama V that gazed over the waiting hall, to board the daily 14.45 ‘International Express’ bound for Butterworth, Malaysia.


Scouts and guides on the Bangkok station floor

Scouts and guides on the Bangkok station floor

Bangkok's Hualamphong station

Bangkok’s Hualamphong station

The 14.45 International Express, train #35, ready for departure

The 14.45 International Express, train #35, ready for departure


Getting these tickets had been an adventure in itself. I had gone to Hualamphong three days prior upon my arrival in Bangkok, only to be confronted with “sorry, no more available” at the ticket counter. The agent, for dramatic effect, swivelled his computer monitor to show me a somewhat incomprehensible screen of numbers and letters. The important thing though, was that the seats on the train were all zeroed out. “Look!”

This was a little unanticipated. I later realize that I have arrived during a school holiday and was intending to travel at the end of this holiday, and on a Friday, hence the train selling out. Perhaps it was time to abandon the dream, and return to the modern default – to take the plane. While an extra day in Bangkok would normally be no cause for concern, this time was different: I had a family anniversary to get to Penang for on Saturday afternoon.

But back on the Internet, I find that the one direct daily flight between Bangkok and Penang is booked out. Few other options – either exorbitantly priced or involving unprotected air connections – seem to present themselves.

But then The Man in Seat 61 reminds me that the whole Bangkok-Butterworth journey is only undertaken by two carriages. Other parts of the train, and indeed other trains, run and terminate at Hat Yai, a little before the Thai-Malaysian border.

Armed with this sliver of knowledge, the next day I return to the station ticket counter, and ask for a ticket – on the same train – from Bangkok to Hat Yai. Success! At least I will get a thousand kilometres or so out of Bangkok. That train is due into Hat Yai at 6.30am, and I figure – or so the internet tells me – that I can get a bus from Hat Yai to Penang in time for the evening.

Thankfully, all this is moot when, in a final roll of the dice, I arrive at the station an hour or so before the International Express is due to depart, and ask at the ticket counter about this last leg, from Hat Yai to Butterworth. And lo and behold, a cancellation has meant that there is a seat after all. So I walk away from the counter, with a little quiet fistpump to myself, now with two tickets in hand for the same train – from Bangkok to Hat Yai in one carriage, and then Hat Yai to Butterworth in another. A little shuffling around will be required, but it is at least much more reassuring than taking the bus.

I also quietly thank the inefficiencies of the Thai railway, and the fact that it has not adopted airline-style dynamic ticket pricing. The price for this little bit of split-ticketing – which remember, has only fallen into place an hour before departure – is little different to a single through ticket, at 1497 Thai baht.

The platforms at Hualamphong

The platforms at Hualamphong

Last-minute repairs

Last-minute repairs

Carriage for the Bangkok-Hat Yai section

Carriage for the Bangkok-Hat Yai section


Bangkok’s Hualamphong station is a terminus, with the line heading northwards. The first hour of this journey thus is a somewhat tortorous crawl through the northern Bangkok suburbs. A multitude of level crossings, combined with the density of Bangkok’s road traffic, make it slow progress indeed. But then soon enough we begin a looping westerly curve, over the Chao Phaya river to finally head southwards.

One of many level crossings leaving Bangkok

One of many level crossings leaving Bangkok

The urban greyness of Bangkok soon gives way to the green of the countryside: rice paddies, palm oil plantations, and patches of jungle and overgrowth. On the train, however, there is a constant stream of people through the carriages and the hiss of the doors sliding open: ticket inspectors, railway police, catering staff, hawkers who hop on and off from station to station. There is even a cleaner, armed with a mop and bucket, whose valiant work is utterly undermined by this parade of people and their trail of shoeprints.

Paddy fields beyond Bangkok

Paddy fields beyond Bangkok

At least these are perhaps the most spacious train seats that I have ever been in. Wide enough to seat two, for the sleeper segment of the journey only one person is allocated to the seat. A giant pillow means that my best efforts at making progress with a book are defeated by dozing off to the clackety-clack sound of wheels on rails. By the time I rouse myself, the sun is beginning to set, for which my seat is on the ‘right’ side of the train to see the glowing ball of orange gently arc towards the horizon. The landscape is also gradually giving way to the hills and mountains in the distance, the Tenasserim Hills that mark the natural border between Thailand and Myanmar silhouetted against the setting sun.

Sunset from the train

Sunset from the train

Seats and cushions

Seats and cushions

View down the train carriage

View down the train carriage


Why is it that the more high-tech a train, the worse its catering options for the masses? Eurostar, the TGV…all you ever end up with is a microwaved gloopy panini. By contrast, the best train food I’ve ever had was on a slow Amtrak sleeper from Washington DC to Atlanta, ribs cooked to perfection and the chance company of a member of the US House of Representatives heading back to his district for the weekend. In second place was gloriously unhealthy early lunch on in a Czech dining car from Dresden to Prague, where the cook looked simply delighted to have a customer.

But on this train, the ‘Bogie Restaurant’, as it calls itself, is a site of frenzied activity. For some reason few people seem to choose to eat in the restaurant car. Instead, the car is half occupied by restaurant staff busily plating up meals, and then covering them in clingfilm to be carried through the carriages to the passengers. So I am largely alone for dinner – although it is by no means quiet, as the rattle of the wok competes with the sizzle of frying.

Plated and wrapped meals for delivery down the train

Plated and wrapped meals for delivery down the train

With nine different set meal options, now this is a kitchen worthy of the name! I go for the set with both fried pork and green curry chicken, which also comes with fruits and soup, and in a matter of minutes, fresh, steaming portions are put out in front of me on the checked tablecloth. Nothing is out of a microwave, instead all prepared a few feet away, and it tastes like it.

The Bogie Restaurant in action

The Bogie Restaurant during a lull in action

Dinner options on the Bogie Restaurant

Dinner options on the Bogie Restaurant

My four-course dinner

My four-course dinner


Making up the sleeper berths

While contemplating this overnight journey, I had stumbled across a YouTube video of the ‘turn-down service’ in action (again hat-tip to The Man in Seat 61). By the time I return to the sleeper carriages, the attendant is already well into his motions further down the carriage, and I am just in time to watch him at work. It is a supremely coordinated sequence, repeated bunk after bunk: a rhythm of unlatching the upper bunk that swings down from the ceiling, then latching it in; sliding the two seats together to form the lower bunk; retrieving, then laying out the mattress pads stored in the upper bunk; and finally, the fresh sheets that cover the pad and go over the pillow.

The result is a completely flat and relatively soft berth, wide enough to roll 180 degrees, and while the carriage is ‘open’ and not divided into individual cabins, curtains give a pretty complete amount of privacy (although not to sounds). Rather cleverly, there are small shelves built into the carriage ceiling for those of us in upper berths to store bags within reach of the upper berth. So given the relatively early sunset in Thailand, by 9pm most of the carriage has their curtains drawn, and I too, easily drift into sleep.

Ready for sleep

Ready for sleep


The train is due into Hat Yai at what seems like an inordinately early 6.30am, although it is light by then. When I wake myself most of the other passengers are also well on their way to gathering their belongings, and the attendant comes by shortly to pack up the berths, and we return to our sitting positions. Unfortunately, however, 6.30am comes and goes and Hat Yai is no-where to be seen. Instead, groggily drifting in and out of sleepiness, even as the scene outside the window continues to brighten. It is not until around 9.30am that Hat Yai Junction finally arrives. I get my bag but insead of joining the exodus of the carriage, I head down to the part of the train continuing on to Butterworth, and find a new set of seat-mates, all equally half-asleep, even as the train inches backwards and forwards in jerky movements as it sheds its extra parts – most of the carriages and the dining car. A short while later, we pull out of Hat Yai, and head for the Malaysian border.


One of the more iconic modern examples of contrasting development trajectories is a well-known photo of forests along the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. In a neat, undulating line, the Haitian side is stripped bare, while the Dominican Republic remains densely forested.

'Open tracks'

‘Open tracks’

The change in crossing the Thai-Malaysian border is less stark, but noticeable nonetheless, at least in railway terms. On the Thai side, the tracks are ‘open’ – people happily/dangerously cross wherever they want and fields and buildings skirt right up to the edge of the tracks. Entering into Malaysia, however, the tracks are ‘closed’, fenced off with an strip of land between any development and the tracks. The Malaysian rail network has recently completed a double-tracking and electrification project right up to the border, so suddenly, overhead wires, and freshly-laid track ballast, yet to be weathered by the rain and pollution, also appears alongside the track that we are running on.

At Padang Besar station, immigration formalities for both sides of the border are completed. For the passenger, however, the most noticeable design difference between the Malaysian and Thai networks is that Thai station platforms are ‘at grade’ – level with the track, so the passenger has to climb up onto the train. Malaysian platforms, by contrast, are level with the carriage floor. So when the Thai carriage rolls into the Malaysian station, a stopgap solution is found – some planks that somewhat precariously bridge the gap between the carriage floor that is designed to plunge downwards to track level, and the platform.

Mind the gap – between the steps and top of the platform.



In his history of efforts at international government, Governing the World, Mark Mazower writes about the rise of ‘scientific internationalism’ at the dawn of the 20th century, when an international bureaucracy (that still remains with us today) began to emerge to attempt to coordinate and unify scientific expertise. The harmonization of technical standards – efforts to speak a common scientific language – was seen as a step to making the world a more peaceful place. The “metric movement swept most of Europe by the 1880s”, Mazower writes, and similar movements of standardization in other spheres were also underway, such as the adoption of the Greenwich meridian for navigation and timekeeping purposes.

The metric system, of course, saw only incomplete adoption – and the railways also saw a similar story, where in different parts of the world, different track gauge widths are used, the result of a mix of geography, technology, and the path dependency of sunk infrastructure costs. Even today, trans-European through train travel (i.e. the Paris-Moscow Express) includes a technical stop at Brest on the Belarussian border for carriages to be raised and bogies replaced, in order to continue the journey onto Moscow on wider Russian-gauge track than the European standard.

For my journey, therefore, the fact that the International Express chugs smoothly over the Thai-Malaysian border is also a quietly remarkable non-event. With both countries having adopted the same railway standard of a 1,000m gauge, the diesel-powered train is interoperable across the border, with only a change of locomotive from the State Railway of Thailand to Keretapi Tanah Melayu, the Malaysian rail operator.

View out of the back of the train at Padang Besar (while stationary). Note the overhead wires for electric trains.


From Bangkok to Butterworth (on Google Maps)

The ‘Express’ is a somewhat sad two carriages when it gets into Malaysia, trundling southwards for the final couple of hours from Padang Besar to Butterworth. As if to amplify the reduced stature of this train, the air conditioning decides to pack in for most of the remaining time on Malaysian tracks.

By the time we pull into Butterworth, some two hours behind schedule just before 3pm, it has been 24 hours since leaving Bangkok, the longest I’ve spent on a train. I once spent an almost similar amount of time – I think it was closer to 18 hours – on a Shosholoza Meyl sleeper from Durban to Johannesburg, and more recently, the 12 hours of a daytime train on the Overland from Adelaide to Melbourne. (I’m not complaining – bring on the Trans-Siberian!).

One of the trendy images that floats around twitter is a map of isochronic distances from London in the early 20th century, illustrating travel time, rather than absolute distance. As I disembark, It feels as if I have just walked out of the era of those maps, where travel is measured in days rather than hours.

It is, after all, a journey covering well over 1,100km, a whole day on the rails compared to the sub-2 hour flight time that Google Maps seems to prefer. One of The Economist’s recent book reviews, of a airline pilot’s memoirs, speaks of the ‘place lag’ somewhat endemic to air travel, “the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our aeroplanes”.

There’s none of that on this trip.

Butterworth station

The Malaysian KTM locomotive

The Malaysian KTM locomotive


A shuttle minivan takes disembarking passengers up to the nearby ferry terminal – and after some fumbling with change for the antiquated turnstiles, I am on the ferry across to Penang island. The haze limits visibility, but the giant hulking outline of a Star Cruises liner is visible in the distance, as are a range of other container ships: one Marshall Islands-flagged vessel has the same orange submarine-like emergency lifeboat seen in Captain Phillips, which seems somewhat incongrous in the density of the Penang harbour. But while the Horn of Somalia is on the other side of the Indian Ocean, pirates are also not unknown in the Straits of Malacca.

A view from the Butterworth ferry to Penang island

A view from the Butterworth ferry to Penang island

The ferry journey – a service that has been the subject of much recent debate between the state and federal governments, but seems to function adequately today – is just ten minutes or so before disembarking.

I make it in time for the family anniversary, where I am asked, somewhat incredulously: “You came by train?”

“Yes, I did.”

The State Railway of Thailand insignia

The State Railway of Thailand insignia

All images (except the Google Maps screenshot) by Nick Chan. Please do not reproduce without credit. 

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