BANGKOK: Thailand’s military government has made rail development and construction its top transport priority, and that is attracting the attention of countries looking to export their technology and grab a slice of the investment pie.
The government wants to double the tracks and modernise the country's 120-year-old railway networks by increasing the existing 4,000 kilometres of rail infrastructure to 10,000 kilometres over the next decade.
In the past, Thailand's ageing railways have been used predominantly for passengers, but the planned expansion will accommodate greater use of railway for cargo. The Transport Ministry has estimated that by 2022, five per cent of cargo nationwide will move by rail.
The government is also pushing to expand Bangkok's rail mass transit systems with plans to build 10 new lines, two of which have already been completed. Discussions are also taking place on rail transit systems in Thailand's other big cities and towns.
Plans are also afoot for new medium- and high-speed rail lines that will improve the country’s connectivity with its neighbours. These projects have already generated lots of interest from countries and international companies that export rail technology.
Thailand's ageing railway. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
SINO-THAI RAIL LINE
The most prominent rail project under this government is the multi-billion baht Thai-Chinese rail development scheme, which was initiated at the end of 2014.
The line will be more than 800 kilometres long and will link the Thai-Laos border of Nong Khai with Bangkok as well as Thailand's main deep-sea port in eastern Thailand.
Initially, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had said both governments wanted the construction of the project to start last year, but it has since stalled because of differences in approach to the project between Bangkok and Beijing.
Construction of one of the 10 new MRTA mass transit rail line in Bangkok. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
"The process is quite different and it will take time," Thailand Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith told Channel NewsAsia. "The Chinese, when they do these kinds of projects, do not need to conduct feasibility studies like us," he said.
"There are other issues like the construction process, environmental impact assessment and the acquisition of the right of way for the track. If we start step-by-step, then you go in well-prepared," Arkhom added.
"This does not mean that the project will not happen," said Dr Ruth Banomyong, who is the head of Department of International Business, Logistics and Transport at Thammasat Business School.
"The issue here is that there are two different ways of doing infrastructure projects. China has its way and Thailand has its own way. This is what has frustrated the leaders of both countries. It is not the question of not having the intention, but of technical safeguards and a minimum requirement for internal rate of return. It takes time.
“You also have the environmental issues you have to go through, but the Chinese are not used to that; because the way it works in China, if they want to build they just do it," Dr Ruth added.
COOPERATION WITH JAPAN
Meanwhile, the Thai and Japanese governments are working on two potential high-speed rail joint-ventures, one linking Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and an East-West cross-country line.
The two projects are still undergoing feasibility studies.
Japanese private companies are already making headway in Thailand's other rail front - the mass transit system in the capital. Bangkok's Purple Line, which was launched last year, is a result of cooperation between Thai and Japanese companies.
Bangkok's Purple Line MRTA trains. (Photo: Kittiphum Sringammuang)
It is not the first Japanese private sector involvement in Thai rail development but it is the first overseas project for Japanese rail giant East Japan Railway Company (JR East), which carries 17 million passengers in Japan each day.
Its project in Thailand is in partnership with Marubeni and Toshiba, and the company wants it to serve as a showcase for future exports of Japanese rail technology - both operational and maintenance systems.
"Because Japanese high-speed technology has not been used in many countries, they are very serious about their standards," said Minister Arkhom.
"This is the first use of Japanese software systems and rolling stock use for the Bangkok's MRT system," said Theeraphan Tachasirinugune, the deputy governor of the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA). "In the past, our mass transit systems used operational software from companies like Siemens which uses German technology," he said.
“For a long time, we have exported rail hardware, but it is not enough," said Yuji Hidaka, the managing director and president of Japan Transportation Technology - a company representing JR East, Marubeni and Toshiba in the Purple Line project. "This is the first time East Japan Railway has come out from the domestic market, and they can cover and make up for this missing piece."
An MRTA Rail maintenance depot in Bang Yai. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
The Thai rail expansion has also sparked interest from European countries vying for a piece of the action, particularly in the area of technical training.
Last year, the Thai and German transport ministries signed a joint declaration of intent on further cooperation in the development of railways. There was also new cooperation between Thai and Austrian technical colleges on rail technology as well.
“We know that in the coming years, a big amount of money has been earmarked and dedicated to infrastructure and rail infrastructure in ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia," said Jesus Miguel Sanz, Ambassador and head of delegation to the European Union in Thailand.
"We think that in Europe, we have a very nice product to share with you, discuss with you and exchange our experiences.”
An MRTA Purple Line train under maintenance. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
Observers have said that there are not enough skilled workers and rail engineers in Thailand to handle the rapid expansion of rail networks.
"Now universities in Thailand are starting to teach people about railway systems, but they are not very comprehensive on new rail technology and software," said Supamas Sirikul, an experienced rail engineer currently working on Bangkok's Purple Line MRT.
Her colleague, Krongphop Klanglay, said he needs at least one year to train each fresh graduate in rail operation and maintenance.
"The training they currently get from local universities and technical colleges is not specialised enough," Krongphop said. "It would be useful for these colleges and universities to seek cooperation with real rail operators so students get hands-on experience."
IS COMPETITION HEALTHY FOR THAI RAIL PROSPECTS?
The Thai government welcomes the international competition on Thailand's rail development because it could help lower the price of the planned expansion.
“We have government-to-government cooperation projects with Japan and China, but for the rest, it’s open," said Transport Minister Arkhom. "We are cooperating with many countries, not only in Asia but European countries as well."
But experts warn that with so many players coming on board, more comprehensive planning is needed to integrate the various rail systems and other modes of transport.
"Multiple systems are not really a good idea, because what you need is in fact an integrated rail network", said Dr Ruth of Thammasat Business School.
"Railways are very important for the future, but they are not the future. The reality is you need to look at how to integrate the various mode of transport. How can you enable a seamless transport system? That's really the key."