Thailand looking to Japan for railways revamp

BANGKOK - Thailand is talking to Japan with a view to building three rail routes in the Southeast Asian country, a Thai minister said on Saturday, the latest move by its military government to kick-start long-delayed plans to modernise its aging rail network.

Thailand wants three new lines connecting the capital, Bangkok, with cities in the east, west, north and northeast and Japan had expressed interest in undertaking the work, said Thai Transport Minister Air Chief Marshal Prajin Junthong.

His announcement comes a day after Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding with China to construct two separate lines of 867 km in the kingdom, starting in 2016.

"We're still in the process of talks (with Japan). It will be clearer after the Japanese government has finished its election and discussion will be made with both sides," Prajin told reporters on the sidelines of a regional summit in Bangkok.

An overhaul of Thailand's rail network was proposed long ago but has yet to materialise. The junta wants to start the ball rolling as part of its big infrastructure plans to try to revive an economy blighted by weak spending and exports.

Thailand has proposed Japan builds two separate east-west lines, one from Mae Sot at the Myanmar border to Mukdahan near the border with Laos and another connecting Kanchanaburi with the industrialised province of Rayong.

A third route would run from Bangkok to the northern city of Chiang Mai, Prajin said.

The three routes combined would cover roughly 1,500 km, according to Reuters calculations. Thailand agreed to use Chinese firms and technology to build a 734-km standard-gauge dual track railway from Nong Khai on Thailand's border with Laos, to its ports and industrial zones in the east.

Another line would link Bangkok with the central province of Saraburi about 108 km away.

A modern rail network would boost Thai trade and tourism and strengthen China's strategic foothold in a country with traditionally strong ties with Japan and the United States. Relations with Washington have soured since a coup in May.

Japan has long been Thailand's biggest investor, mainly in car manufacturing and high-tech industries. Like China, Japan has substantial economic interests in the region, in particular, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand.