Accounting for roughly one-quarter of Thailand’s 68m inhabitants and serving as the economic, social and political heart of the country, maintaining the efficient flow of people and goods in, out and around Bangkok is crucial to keeping the country moving. The Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) dominates the country both financially and demographically, with its six districts encompassing 7785 sq km, home to a population of approximately 17.5m and accounting for 68% of national GDP. Yet after decades of urban migration and economic growth, new arrivals and a growing number of tourists from all around the world have contributed to the capital’s increasing congestion and traffic problems.
For many, the most efficient means of navigating Bangkok during peak traffic hours is via the city’s expanding mass transit system, providing the commuter’s destination lies within close proximity of the requisite station. This interlocking system of transportation routes employs a range of different methods, ranging from elevated skytrains serving the densely populated urban centre, to underground subway systems connecting different parts of the city. Meanwhile, conventional taxis and buses are also used to serve outlying areas.
Given the built-up nature of Bangkok and the escalating traffic affecting its major thoroughfares, mass transit planners in the past were faced with two choices when deciding on new rail systems: an elevated system built above street level or a subsurface network below the city. In the end planners chose both. The Ministry of Transport (MoT) has included 12 rail lines in its master plan, categorised by colour and stretching out across the city. By 2029 it is estimated that more than 500 km of track will be used as part of the system.
As of the end of 2016, two elevated skytrains operated by Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) were making an average of 700,000 commuter trips per day, along with two active mass raid transit (MRT) lines carrying out another 250,000 commuter trips daily. These trunk lines, owned by the Bangkok Municipal Authority (BMA), at present serve only a fraction of BMR commuters, who average 22m trips per day. While substantially more of this population will be served as the 10 planned lines and rail extensions are built, the majority of transport options are now made up through less efficient means. Most of these are taken through the 12.5m car and motorbike trips per day, which account for 57% of all daily commuter trips in the capital.
The heavy use of cars and motorbikes has been one of the primary causes of traffic congestion in the city, while it is also seen as an area of potential improvement in the future. The other major alternative mode of transport that authorities hope to phase out with the growth of improved rail transit is the use of buses, with around 8m trips taken daily, accounting for 36% of all commuter journeys in the city’s broader metropolitan area.
Operating under the MoT, Thailand’s Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA) is tasked with financing and building most of these projects before turning them over to other entities for operational activity. Other agencies also responsible for MRT development in Bangkok include the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), which is charged with overseeing transit related to the local city government of Bangkok, and the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), which is tasked with the oversight of developments involving the national railway network.
The financing of MRT projects falls into two general categories: public-private partnership (PPPs), under which the government and private sector share investment in each part of development; and the public sector comparator (PSC), whereby the government takes on the full cost of the investment, but may engage the private sector to operate and maintain the system after completion. The airport rail link connecting Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which is owned by the government-held SRT and operated by SRT subsidiary SRT Electrified Train, is an example of the PSC scheme, while urban transit services such as the Blue and Purple Lines fall under the PPP model.
The PPP model also contains a number of permutations, ranging from low levels of government financial involvement (PPP1) such as land acquisition, to higher levels of government participation (PPP3), which include land acquisition, civil works, maintenance and engineering.
Following the investment phase of development, MRT operations of PPP projects are then divided into gross-or net-cost schemes. Under the net-cost model, the concessionaire retains fares and other revenue, such as from commercial development. At the same time, the government is required to make payments to the concessionaire if fares and other revenue are less than the costs incurred by concessionaire. Should the reverse occur, the concessionaire is likewise obligated to make return payments back to the government.
The gross-cost model differs in that the government retains fares and other revenue, but is then also required to pay the concessionaire for services provided, with rates set on the basis of competitive tendering and the type of service provided.
Head In The Clouds
The BTS lines consist of the 22.25-km Light Green Line, along with the 14.5-km Dark Green Line, with commuters able to switch between the lines at the Siam station. Together, ridership of the two elevated links has more than doubled from around 300,000 trips per day in 2014, to more than 700,000 by 2016.
Also known as the Sukhumvit Line, the Light Green Line is an elevated rail service with 22 stations running between Mo Chit station in the Chatuchak district to Bearing in the Bang Na district of Bangkok. Established in 1999, the line is to be lengthened in 2017 with extensions at both its northern and southern peripheries. The connection linking the southern end of the existing line – from the Bearing station to the new Samrong station – was completed in 2016, while the new route began operating in April 2017, with a free-of-charge period extended through to 2018. Following the completion of Samrong station, the remaining eight stations of the extension – Pu Chao, Chang Erawan, Royal Thai Naval Academy, Pak Nam, Srinagarindra, Phraek Sa, Sai Luat and Kheha – are expected to be operational by 2018.
The second BTS Silom Line, also known as the Dark Green Line, consists of 13 stations running between Bang Wa station and the National Stadium.
Feet On The Ground
The Chaloem Ratchamongkhon MRT line, or Blue Line, which was established in 2004, was the first major subterranean line completed in the city. The route transports an average of 250,000 passengers per day through 18 stations with a total track length of 20 km. The other fully operational rail project, established in 2010, runs from downtown Bangkok, connecting passengers from Bang Sue station to Suvarnabhumi International Airport in the city’s east.
More recently, the Purple Line connecting Nonthaburi in the city’s north-west to central Bangkok was completed in August 2016. Stretching 23 km, the MRTA-operated, 16-station line runs from the Khlong Bang Phai terminal in Nonthaburi’s Bang Bua Thong district to Tao Poon station in Bangkok’s Bang Sue district. However, upon opening there were complaints over the connectivity of the service, with many unhappy with the 1-km gap between the end of the line at Tao Poon station and the nearest Blue Line station of Bang Sue. This resulted in commuters who wanted to continue into the city centre being forced to either walk 1 km between stations or take a shuttle service. According to local press reports, this was seen as a reason why initial ridership averaged only 20,000 users per day in the first few months, well short of the target of 60,000-70,000. Although future extensions should address the issue by extending the Blue Line to the Purple Line, these plans are still some years away, with a short-term solution needed to make the line economically viable in the meantime.
Like the BTS, multiple MRT lines are also in the midst of extension projects, including the construction of 27 km of new track for the Blue Line service and 15 km for the Light Red Line. As for ongoing works, a new wave of projects was started in 2016 and 2017, with contracts awarded to construct new rail links consisting of the Orange, Yellow and Pink Lines. The Orange Line is expected to become operational by 2022, while the other two services could come on-line as early as 2020.
Mix & Match
Although the MRTA spearheads the development of mass transit projects in Bangkok, the operation of the various lines can present interconnectivity challenges for both commuters and operators alike. Companies involved in the operation of transit links include the Bangkok Expressway and Metro Public Company (BEM), Krungthep Thanakom, the operator of the BTS Skytrain, and the SRT, the operator of the rail link connecting central Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi Airport in the city’s east.
One of the challenges associated with the development of numerous independent transit lines that are run by separate operators is the lack of continuity between each system. These challenges relate to both physical connectivity (allowing passengers manageable means to move from one line and another) and operational transferability (ideally using a single-ticket system for the network rather than relying on multiple tickets that incur multiple charges for passengers using different services).
This poses challenges not only for implementing unified connections between different operators such as BEM and BTS, but also for separately awarded projects run by the same company. A prime example is the aforementioned 1-km gap between the Blue and Purple MRT lines, despite both services being operated by the same company, BEM.
“Integration is a challenge. Even when the operator is the same, the concession for each line is separate, so the financing for each will be different, resulting in a fare that is also different,” Sumet Ongkittikul, research director for transportation and logistics policy at the Thailand Development Research Institute, told OBG. “We are trying now to implement the Mangmoom (spider) card, which will include the BTS, MRT, airport rail link and any new concessions.” Once implemented, the Mangmoom card will allow passengers to travel between all participating operators using a single integrated ticketing system, although commuters must still pay for each leg of the journey separately, depending on which operator is running the service.
Another challenge facing both public developers and private operators is the disparate usage levels of lines, particularly for newly built lines serving less populated areas. Low usage of some routes, as was seen after the opening of the Purple Line, for example, means that operators must either take a financial loss or charge higher fares, further reducing the attractiveness of the line. In such cases, the government may choose to subsidise the service to help keep fares low. If prices remain too high, it could lead to a continued lack of interest in less popular services, making it difficult to generate interest in developing future lines. “In Singapore and Hong Kong public authorities finance the core line and use the profits to reinvest in sub-core lines, allowing them to cross subsidise the costs, which means that pricing can be equalised. We need to solve this problem here soon, or we will have problems issuing future concessions,” Sumet said.
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