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High-speed rail plan should be shelved for now

Mar 29. 2016
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THE LATEST flip-flop concerning the Thai-Chinese railway project has raised new questions which need to be answered before the government switches on the green light to invest Bt170 billion to Bt190 billion on the 352km Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima route.
First, is this project – estimated by Thai authorities to cost Bt170 billion and by Chinese authorities Bt190 billion – redundant with the State Railway of Thailand’s ongoing project to build the double-track railroad? Or is it workable since both are on the same route?
Previously, the Thai-Chinese project was supposed to be more than 800km long, running from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima and then to Nong Khai province near the border with Laos. It would have linked up with Laos’ standard-gauge track, which would then have connected with China’s railway system.
Thailand proposed to China to form a joint venture for this Bt500-billion-plus scheme. China then requested the right to develop properties along the route and train stations plus other conditions, which were not acceptable to Thailand.
After last week’s meeting with China’s Premier Li Keqiang in Hainan, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced Thailand would invest solely in the project’s first-phase – from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima – while suspending other sections of the project.
The 352km first-phase route would use the 1.435-metre standard-gauge track while the trains would travel at speeds of 250 km per hour and mainly serve passengers. At this stage, the Thai government will be the sole investor and will consider inviting private investors to operate the service under a contract.
The Thai Finance Ministry will be responsible for providing the sources of funds, while an environmental impact assessment is underway.
On connectivity with Laos and China, Thai authorities said passengers and cargo could use the one-metre gauge double railroads from Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai – and then switch to the 1.435-metre standard gauge track in Laos and China.
Under this plan, construction of the first-phase Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima route could start in August or September of this year.
Another issue is whether Thailand should call international bidding for this project since the Thai government will wholly invest in the scheme.
Previously, Thailand had signed a Framework of Cooperation with China on December 3, 2015 to develop the project. It would be a diplomatic fiasco if China’s high-speed train technology was not used and there was international bidding.
After all, Thailand is already working on a multi-billion-baht double-track railroad expansion on the Bankok-Nakhon Ratchasima and other related routes.
Double-track trains will travel at a higher speed of 100-120 km/h, much faster than today’s low speed on single tracks.
Economically, high-speed trains travelling at 250 km/h are going to be expensive as only 20,000 passengers are expected to use them per day on the Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima route when it is operational.
Such a high-speed service is not economically feasible for cargo transport either, so the service would face significant losses for years to come.
In addition, it will not generate significant property and other development along the route since the planned high-speed trains are going to be on the existing route from Bangkok to the northeastern province.
In terms of connectivity with neighbouring countries, the system will not work due to the different size of rail tracks, so it’s better for Thailand to focus on implementing the double-track railroads at this stage.
Any high-speed train project should be implemented at a later date.

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