Thai connectivity on fast-track under junta
Thailand's high-speed rail links and other mega projects have been forging ahead under the army-installed regime
Construction of Bangkok’s Bang Sue Grand Station – a massive railway complex covering 300,000 square meters – is 70% complete, officials claim, with a partial opening scheduled for December 2020.
The station promises to be a major step forward for Thailand’s transport connectivity.
The three-floor complex in Bang Sue district of northern Bangkok will replace Hua Lamphong Station as the capital’s main train hub, providing commuter access to the suburbs, rail connections to the northern, northeastern and southern provinces, with the top floor reserved exclusively for high-speed train services.
“The third floor is featuring 10 platforms for high-speed trains and two for the Airport Rail Link,” said Kumpol Boonchom, Deputy Chief in charge of the Bang Sue project for the State Railway of Thailand (SRT.)
The Bang Sue Grand Station project was launched in 2006 – four Thai governments and two coups ago – but has made steady progress under the army-installed regime of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose lengthy four-and-a-half-year plus rule now looks set to wrap up in February 2019, when a long-delayed general election is scheduled.
Coup-installed regimes in Thailand have certain advantages over their elected counterparts, such as less need to consult constituents, top-down decision making and fewer heated debates in Parliament, especially over transport projects, which are usually mired in corruption scandals and delays.
“The Transport Ministry is a big piece of cake, politically, because it accounts for a lot of the budget,” said Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith. Arkhom, the former head of the National Economic and Social Development Board, or the national planning agency, who was appointed Deputy Transport Minister in 2014 and became minister in 2015.
Looking back at his term, Arkhom told Asia Times his main achievement had been “continuity.” “I have always said that Thailand has been lacking in infrastructure for a long time. The last mega-project we had was Suvarnabhumi Airport,” Arkhom said.
During Arkhom’s time, Bangkok has seen the steady expansion of its mass transit system, with extensions of the Skytrain’s Green Line and the subway’s Blue Line completed and the Purple Line opened, although these projects were started under previous governments.
The current regime can claim some credit for pushing through the Yellow Line in southeast Bangkok and the Pink Line in north Bangkok, under a fast-tracked Public Private Partnership (PPP).
“What this government has accomplished is an acceleration of the process,” said Sumet Ongkittikul, Research Director for transportation and logistics policy at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI,) a private think tank. “For example, the Pink Line and Yellow Line, if they were pushed through under an elected government, they would take one to two years longer to start construction,” he said.
Arkhom has also accelerated the stalled construction of three motorways linking Bangkok to northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima, Rayong on the eastern coast and Kanchanaburi.
“Under elected governments, the road budget was allocated to every MP. There were piecemeal projects, but I think we could do more on the big projects,” the transport minister said.
Prayut’s main mega-project, the $43 billion Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), was kicked off a bit late in his rule in mid-2017, but Parliament and the Cabinet have been working overtime to push the ambitious scheme through before the next election.
In May, a special EEC Act was passed, effectively setting up the legislative framework for the scheme to operate under, granting it special status in such sensitive areas as hiring foreign experts and allowing majority foreign ownership in industrial estates and infrastructure projects.
The EEC seeks to attract high-tech, added-value industries to Thailand’s east coast in Chachoengsao, Chonburi and Rayong provinces, but to do so it needs to upgrade the infrastructure in the region, which already ranks among the kingdom’s best-developed.
This was thanks to the successful implementation of the Eastern Seaboard mega-project in the same area two decades ago, which involved building new highways, industrial estates, two deep sea ports and a massive petrochemical complex.
The regime has fast-tracked US$20 billion worth of EEC-related infrastructure schemes including the upgrading of the U-Tapao International Airport, expansions of Mab Ta Phut and Laem Chabang deep-sea ports and a high-speed train linking U-Tapao Airport to Bangkok’s two international airports – Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang.
The largest item, the $6.9 billion, 220 km high-speed train link, tops the government’s “to do” list.
The Terms of Reference (TOR) were issued on June 18 and snapped up by 31 interested bidders, including four Japanese and seven Chinese consortiums, two from France, two from Malaysia, one from Korea and the remainder from Thailand, including local conglomerates Charoen Pokphand and BTS Group Holdings, the operator of Bangkok’s Skytrain.
They need to turn their bids in by November 12 and the government hopes to announce the winner by February at the latest.
“It is scheduled before the election date,” Arkhom said. “We have to follow the schedule because it has already been announced and 31 international companies already bought the documents.”
There are fears that if the announcement of the winner is delayed till after the election, a new government will call for a review of the project and things will be postponed for years.
The outcome of the EEC rail link bid is being closely watched by the governments of Japan and China, which are both backing separate high-speed rail projects in Thailand worth billions of dollars and added-value in terms of geo-political influence in the kingdom and mainland Southeast Asia.
The project’s contractor will have technical repercussions for two other high-speed train projects in the works – the Thai-China high-speed train linking Bangkok and Nong Khai, on the Thai-Laos border, which then goes on to Vientiane, Laos, and Kunming, China, and the Japan-backed high-speed train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
Chinese and Japanese high-speed train systems employ different “signaling” technology, although both systems were modified from the original European system.
“If it is a Chinese system, maybe we can make use of it for the two projects [EEC and Thai-China high speed links] and the remainder [Bangkok-Chiang Mai] will be Japanese,” SRT’s Kumpol said. “If the EEC goes to a Japanese contractor, the northern line will also make use of the Japanese system.”
The Transport Ministry has seemingly washed its hands of the important decision for Thailand’s railways future.
“It depends on the bidding outcome,” Arkhom said. “The SRT takes care of the bidding process.”
Arkhom has reportedly been under pressure from Beijing to move more quickly on the high-speed train link between Bangkok and Nong Khai, which is a crucial aspect of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
While the $6 billion Laos-China medium-speed rail link between Kunming and Vientiane is expected to be ready for business by 2020, Thailand has yet to complete even a 3.5 kilometer “test track” for the first phase of its project, which is a 253 kilometer high-speed connection between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima.
But Arkhom claims his administration has achieved more on pushing the railway forward than the previous government.
“Under the previous government, the China-Thai railway didn’t move forward because the Chinese wanted everything, just like in Laos,” Arkhom said. “They wanted the right to use the land, the right to develop the station and to import the labor, but what we started with was – this is Thailand so we will do our part.”
Thailand has assumed all financial responsibility for the project and will handle the construction side, but will eventually sign a contract with China purchase the rolling stock and operation equipment.
“I think it is beyond the pressure [point] because everything has been settled,” Arkhom claimed. “As time goes by, they have relaxed,” he said of the Chinese, down-playing the rail rivalry between to two East Asian powerhouses Japan and China.
Arkhom indicated that the two rivals might even cooperate on the EEC rail scheme. “Now they are working together, China and Japan know each other’s weaknesses,” the minister said.