The Transport Ministry is expediting the establishment of a new railway transport department by next year to deal with the hefty investment budget to be spent on expansion of the railroad network nationwide over the next 10 years.
"The establishment of a railway transport department is considered a government policy," Transport Minister Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong said. "If there are no obstacles, the department is expected to take effect next year."
Speaking after a public seminar on the future of rail transport in Thailand held yesterday in Bangkok by the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning (OTP), Prajin said the major role of the new department in the initial stage would be as a regulatory body.
Over the next decade, the national railway network is expected to double from its current 4,000 kilometres, he said.
Yesterday's seminar was aimed at gathering comments from representatives of both state and private organisations in the transport and logistics sector before the plan for the new department is submitted to Cabinet and then to the National Legislative Assembly for consideration.
There was general agreement at the meeting about the need for a railway transport department, but some were sceptical about the details of its implementation, whether it would function effectively, and whether the establishment process would be practical. It was also pointed out that the new department should ensure that urban expansion is considered when constructing railroads rather than focusing only on the benefits to the transport system.
Of all transport modes, only rail lacks a regulatory body of its own, unlike roads, waterways and air transport. Meanwhile, half of the government's Bt1.94-trillion (S$76.1 billion) 10-year transport-development plan is focused on the rail system, said Pichet Kunathammarak, head of the OTP's inter-city transport and traffic network development group.
The government has realised that railway transport will be a key driver of Thailand's economic growth as it has proved suitable for the country's export products, with logistics costs a fraction of the road network's. A government department, therefore, is needed as a tool to direct the railway sector, he said.
"Its establishment, which is being legislated, is at a very early stage. However, there is high hope to have it established by this [current military-led] government. If so, it could take only a year," he said.
Pichet said the department's major roles would be involved with investing in infrastructure such as tracks, providing maintenance, governing services and ticketing, and setting safety standards, as well as licensing railway operations.
Its major income would come from track-rental fees paid by railway operators.
Meanwhile, the role of the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) would be adjusted to become a railway operator along with Bangkok Metro, operator of the MRT subway, and Bangkok Mass Transit System, operator of the Skytrain.
"Returns on investments into railroad construction are not high on a financial basis, but are on an economic and a social basis," said Pichet, adding that this reorganisation could help SRT unload its debt burden.