By Nareerat Wiriyapong
Thailand’s turbulent politics and frequent changes in transport policies have resulted in delays in rail project development, with links to serve regional integration still on the drawing board, experts say.
While securing finances seems to be the biggest headache in neighbouring countries, frequent changes in government and the people in charge of transport policies have held Thailand back, said Chula Sukmanop, former director-general of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning.
“Generally, these factors have caused interruptions in executing rail projects which normally are high-cost but generate vast economic benefits during and after the construction,” he told Asia Focus .For instance, the 700-billion-baht highspeed train network, which were pushed very hard by the previous government, is not included in the 2.4-trillion-baht infrastructure development master plan of the current military-installed administration. About 60% of the budget under the seven-year plan for 2015-22 is allocated to transport-related projects.
The four proposed high-speed routes were to link Bangkok with Chiang Mai in the North, Nong Khai in the Northeast, Rayong in the East, and Padang Besar in the South. Taking their place in the new plan will be two high-speed lines linking Thailand with southern China and focusing on cargo and not passengers.
Other projects that have been shelved under the new plan also include motorways connecting Bangkok to adjacent cities. The Transport Ministry has been working on final details.
The main focus of rail policy now will be three dual-track train lines to be connected with lines in neighbouring countries. Links will be built between Nong Khai and Laos, from Padang Besar to Malaysia, and from Aranyaprathet district to Cambodia.
Thailand is also part of the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL) which is scheduled to be completed by 2020. The route includes a 50-kilometre section from Thailand’s border with Cambodia to Phnom Penh. From the Cambodian capital to border with Vietnam and to Ho Chi Minh City, a missing link of around 500 km must be completed, and funds are now being raised, said Mr Chula.
Financial assistance for various parts of the Asean rail link have come from multilateral organisations led by the Asian Development Bank, as well as neighbouring countries. Malaysia, for example, has provided funds to Cambodia while Thailand helped Laos to build a two-kilometre span across the Mekong River. Laos, in addition, has been in talks for financial support from China.
The completed link will bring tangible benefits to all land-linked countries in the region. Malaysia, in particular, has invested significantly in Cambodia, meaning the regional network will help Malaysian companies investing there once the missing link is built.
Most railway projects are financed by fiscal budgets and loans, while most road projects are funded by fiscal budgets and public-private partnerships (PPPs).
“So far, Thailand has focused on road projects that are faster and have a lower cost to develop. Most of the rail projects, meanwhile, are in the study and design phases,” said Mr Chula.
The country is upgrading main highways toward border checkpoints in all regions from three lanes to four. The work has made substantial progress and should be completed in two to three years.
Altogether, there are almost 4,500 km of four-lane roads, mostly in provinces along borders with neighbouring countries, which vehicles from all Asean countries can use.
Improvement of roads surrounding Suvarnabhumi Airport and Laem Chabang deep-sea port is among the priorities to allow better flows of traffic around the international airport and the country’s main port, Mr Chula said.
Thailand’s infrastructure development programmes aim to increase rail travel from 45 million trips per year to 75 million and to double rail transport’s share of freight to 5%. Cross-border freight volume should increase by more than 5% while the share of mass transit in Bangkok could surge from 5% to 30% of all trips.
Planners aim to reduce logistics costs by at least two percentage points from the current too-high level of 15.2% of GDP, while also saving 100 billion baht per year in energy costs.
Sumet Ongkittikul, research director for transport and logistics policy at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), said one major obstacle to the development of transport infrastructure is the lack of clear lines of authority, resulting in project delays, especially where the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) is concerned.
Investment in dual-track rail has high potential in terms of return on investment but the viability of high-speed trains was questionable, said Mr Sumet in his recent report.
He recommends the Thai government overhaul the structure of rail business and restructure the massive debts of the SRT, which can barely afford to maintain the trains and tracks that it has, let alone invest in new development. As well, he said, an independent body should be set up to take charge of infrastructure project development.
Austria, for instance, uses SCHIG mbH (Railway Infrastructure Services Company) with the main purpose of financing investments in rail infrastructure as part of the liberalisation of the rail sector.
The private sector, meanwhile, should be allowed to take part in rail services to help upgrade quality, added Mr Sumet.
Meanwhile, a construction of a 1.29-billion-baht multi-purpose port in Khlong Yai district in Trat province is being accelerated. The port, scheduled to be completed sometime next year, will support the growing trade and tourism in the eastern region.
First published: Bangkok Post, October 12, 2014