Work ongoing to expand Thailand's railway network

 

Across the country, Thailand’s rail network is being transformed. In Bangkok, the efficient three-line service – with two Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) lines and one Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) line – is extending outward and quickly evolving. Outside of the capital, four high-speed railways are being planned or under construction, while connections to China, being built under China’s Belt and Road Initiative are only a few years away. In addition, an existing intercity train system is set to become a key piece of the national infrastructure and enabler of regional development.

In the Making

In 1900 a railway from Singapore to Kunming in China was discussed but failed to gain support after the Russian Revolution made links into China undesirable. The Second World War stopped possible connections via Myanmar, while those through Indochina were either not completed or destroyed. The development of this line is now being led by China. Construction on the 440-km Lao segment began in 2016 and is expected to be completed by 2022. Although progress has been slower in Thailand, work is under way, with ground broken on the 252-km Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima leg in late 2017. When complete, the Thai segment of the high-speed line will extend to the border with Laos, where it will continue into China.

It is expected that construction of the high-speed rail from Bangkok to Chiang Mai will begin in 2020. Japan remains interested in the project, with the Japan International Cooperation Agency issuing a feasibility study in early 2018. A Bangkok-Hua Hin high-speed line has also been discussed, while the Bangkok-Rayong line will run from Lad-Krabang to U-Tapao. Other rail improvements under way include extensive dual-tracking and a number of local light-rail systems.

Regionally, the Cambodian rail system is now close to being reconnected to the Thai system. A 48-km stretch of rail from Sisophon to Poipet, which is situated on the Thai border, was completed in early 2018. Sisophon will be connected to Phnom Penh by the end of 2018. The Aranyaprathet-to-Ban Khlong Luek link on the Thai side has been completed, but the border was not yet ready to handle rail traffic as of May 2018.

Downtown

The web of lines in downtown Bangkok is expanding, and a coherent vision is starting to emerge from the frenetic construction. The three core lines are being extended farther into the suburbs, while additional links are being built to complement the original architecture and offer connections across the city. The Silom Line extension is meeting the MRT Blue Line extension, which itself will have a line extending up to Bang Sue. Three new lines are being built out from the centre, and they will be linked up by two new lines partially encircling the centre. In total, seven projects are under way and six more are being planned. By the mid-2020s, Bangkok should be an integrated metropolis in terms of transportation, while the country as a whole should be served by fast rail lines that travel to secondary and tertiary urban centres. If all goes to plan, these developments will be connected to China in the north and Cambodia and Vietnam in east. As such, Thailand has the potential to be at the core of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Costs & Concerns 

Despite notable progress, concerns about costs and profitability remain. The city lines are generating low revenues as they service less densely populated areas. Even more concerning are the financing gaps in the connection to Laos and China. Thailand is financing the BT179bn ($5.2bn) first section, but there is no plan in place for the second. Some have questioned the worth of servicing an underdeveloped part of the country; the extension to China may only make sense as a freight line. “There is a lot of symbolism around high-speed trains,” Ruth Banomyong, head of the department of international business, logistics and transport at Thammasat University, told OBG. While there are potential risks, this international high-speed link could spur regional development, making the project feasible in the long-term.

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The Report: Thailand 2018

Transport chapter from The Report: Thailand 2018

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