Thais on right track with rail expansion

If anything is unfinished business in Thailand and its neighbourhood, it is rail. The Greater Mekong Sub-region has more than 860,000km of roads, but less than 19,000km of railways.

The length of the road network has grown by more than 37 per cent since 2005, but the length of rail by just 10 per cent since 2001.

Now, China is going to finance two separate lines in Thailand, starting in 2016. And Thailand is turning to Japan to help with three new lines connecting Bangkok with the rest of the country.

Combined, the plans could see Thailand's creaky, loss-making, narrow-gauge railway system catch up with the rest of the world. Analysts have applauded this, but with residual scepticism.

"It was realised about 10 years ago that we need to invest in rail to reduce transport costs, but governments have been slow," said academic Saksith Chalermpong of the department of civil engineering at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Political turmoil, changes of government and, above all, bureaucracy, have delayed the plans.

In an agreement signed last weekend in Bangkok, to smiles from Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, China will in effect build Thailand's first standard-gauge tracks.

One route covering 734km will run from Nong Khai province on the border with Vientiane in Laos, to the Map Ta Phut deep-sea port in Thailand's Rayong province. The second, 133km line will connect Bangkok with the first line at Kaeng Khoi district in Saraburi province.

Also at the weekend, Thai Transport Minister Prajin Junthong said Bangkok would look to Japan to help build three separate lines. Two will connect the Thai-Myanmar border to the Thai-Laos border and also with Rayong; the third will run from Bangkok to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

The lines built by China have to be seen in the context of Laos, where China wants to finance and build a railway line connecting its southern border with the Thai border at Nong Khai. This offers China seamless rail connectivity to the Gulf of Thailand.

But according to reports, the Lao line will cost US$7.2 billion (S$9.5 billion), and there remain doubts over the financing of such a huge sum.

For Thailand, questions remain over connectivity; the country's system is metre gauge, while the new lines by China will be a broader, standard gauge. The specifications of the new internal lines to be developed with Japan will not be clear until the actual agreements are made.

Connectivity between different transport modes, and how new railway lines would support development, did not seem to figure in the government's discussions, said Dr Ruth Banomyong, head of the department of international business, logistics and transport at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Whether the new railway projects will create jobs in Thailand and for whom, is a looming question as well. Thailand already has more than a million - some estimates range up to three million - migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia. Bringing in Chinese labour - as has been done for Chinese projects in Sri Lanka and Africa - would be unprecedented for Thailand, said Professor Saksith.

Another question is whether the developments will extend China's reach, converting mainland South-east Asia into a vast Chinese backyard. Hence the effort, analysts say, to keep Japan willingly engaged as well.

Certainly, investing in Thailand's railway network is overdue. With no incentive to upgrade, the state railway has a cumulative debt of nearly 100 billion baht (S$4 billion), said Professor Saksith. Even given the new plans, he was not particularly optimistic. But he acknowledged that "putting the emphasis on rail is heading in the right direction".

This article was first published on December 23, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.