Rail project needs transparency

Rail project needs transparency

A little over 23 kilometres separate the small provincial town of Nong Khai and Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The distance may seem inconsequential, but this border area is critical to the success of the China-Singapore high-speed railway, part of Beijing’s One Belt One Road logistic plan to link China with Asean. Yet the ambitious plan, unveiled in 2010, has been sputtering for nearly a decade, especially in Thailand.

That is about to change. With only 5% of the proposed 609km high-speed Bangkok-Nong Khai route complete, the Thai government recently put the project on high priority and hopes to open the 432-billion-baht high-speed train service by 2028.

At the end of the month, officials from seven ministries, dubbed “Team Thailand 7”, led by Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, are expected to visit Vientiane to discuss the terms and conditions as well as expedite construction of the second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River, featuring a 1,435mm gauge track (the distance between two rail tracks) and a toll collection system.

The Nong Khai-Vientiane rain link — with speeds of up to 250k/h — will comprise two other sections: a 250km link between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima and a 354km route between Nakhon Ratchasima and Nong Khai.

A delay in the project was linked to negative political sentiment and suspicion that China could receive land development rights along the routes in Thailand. As a result, the government later assumed all investments.

Also, the project rarely moved during the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, until the last few months, when the government began looking to reinvigorate the Covid-hit economy.

The project is expected to cut transport time by half and cut cargo costs by 30–50%, making the import and export of products — such as cars, appliances, electronics, computers, produce and raw materials — more competitive.

The interest in the trans-regional, high-speed train is perhaps inspired by the latest China-Lao medium-speed train service which opened in December. The 422km route runs on a 1,435mm gauge, semi-high speed Lao section connecting Vientiane to the country’s special economic zone Boten, a border town near Southwest China.

The modern train, the first in the region, has become a big hit, especially among Thai tourists who have flocked to Luang Prabang via the new railway system since the country reopened, a positive sign of this mode of transport.

The network was also used to transport the first batch of Thai produce — 40 tonnes of durian and 20 tonnes of coconut from Rayong.

The trip, which took about five days, is now the fastest mode of non-air transport into China, and this timeframe will be cut further down the line.

But the planned investment is also a massive gamble for the government.

For one, Thailand already has a short 3.5km rail link from Nong Khai to Thanaleng in Laos. Thanaleng town is only 20km south of Vientiane. The train serves both passengers and cargo.

That prompts questions about the engineering and the issue of redundant investment. Thai railways use a metre gauge or 1,000mm space between tracks, which is less than the international 1,435mm standard.

Also, most of the network is on a single line, meaning trains have to wait to let oncoming traffic pass, which leads to network-wide delays.

By contrast, the government announced it will build a high-speed line covering the same route using the international standard gauge. It sounds like the government wants to have its cake and eat it too.

Is there really a need for two separate lines to serve the same route? While the new train development project will certainly improve the network and trade, how long will it take to pay off the cost of building the high-speed rail?

In one study, assuming a ticket price of 500 baht from Bangkok–Nakhon Ratchasima, between 50,000 and 85,000 passengers will be needed daily for 20 years to offset the cost.

Is that realistic in a country where rail is not a popular form of public transport? Low-cost airlines already serve all corners of the country and Asean at large. Moreover, although there might be demand for the Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima route, the latter part to Nong Khai is unlikely as it’s mostly a remote part of the country.

With the cost of living rising and a tight budget, the government must choose wisely where to spend in these tough times. While high-speed rail can provide economic and social benefits, there should be transparency. Moreover, the government should only build a high-speed rail system for the benefit of the country and its people, rather than to appease a foreign entity.