Monday, September 16, 2019

National rail strategy is a high-speed wreck

Jun 19. 2017
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Re: “Academics concerned over Chinese exemptions for high-speed rail project,” Have Your Say, June 19. 

I am delighted that the “Have Your Say” bloggers echoed the academics by exposing the Chinese rail project to the ridicule it deserves. 

As an engineer who has been involved in the planning, evaluation and design of railways in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong and China, and mass transit in Bangkok, I see as much logic in the government’s national rail strategy as in Thai Airways’ disastrous “pick-and-mix” approach to jet-engine purchases some years back. 

Some important questions beg to be asked. High-speed railways link major metropolises – Tokyo-Osaka, Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur – so why are we planning to build them to places like Hua Hin and Rayong, where a fast suburban service with intermediate stops would be far more appropriate? Why are we proceeding with high-speed railways such as Nong Khai-Bangkok, which we are told are not viable unless new towns are built alongside them? I think we know the answer to that one – it’s because China wants them for its own strategic purpose, and because Thailand – like Cambodia and Laos – is rapidly becoming a Chinese vassal state. 

Why are we negotiating new standard-track railways with the Japanese, yet at the same time duplicating the country’s existing metre-gauge lines? With the high-speed lines, that makes three entirely different systems, at least three fleets of incompatible rolling stock with associated depots and maintenance facilities, and greatly reduced opportunities for network integration. And why are the termini for these new railways to be situated on the peripheries of the cities they are supposed to serve? There was one report that a high-speed railway to the north might be terminated at Ayutthaya. Not great news for the Bangkok passenger, since potential travel time savings would be lost during the struggle through traffic to get to the terminus. Like New York’s Grand Central Station and London’s King’s Cross, Thailand’s central rail station belongs at Hua Lampong.  

And why is any of this nonsense even being contemplated when the existing system is falling apart? There were more than 100 derailments in 2015 – what’s all that about? 

It is not too late to bin these wretched plans and apply some common sense, supported by a proper evaluation, in drawing up a sound rail development strategy. For starters, how about deciding once and for all to go for standard gauge throughout, and replace, line by line, the antiquated metre gauge? How about defining common standards of high-speed, inter-city and suburban rail  technologies for a unified network? Since all southbound trains have to travel north 10 kilometres before doubling back through Taling Chan and meandering through the central plain before heading south, how about building the blatantly obvious – a tunnel from Hua Lampong beneath the Chao Phraya River to link up with an upgraded Mae Klong Line to the southern line at Pak Tho? There are plenty of ways of making better use of a couple of trillion baht, and the present strategy just doesn’t cut it. 

It may be too late, in which case all we can hope for is that the pig farmers at Ban Rai Klang Dong will appreciate their spanking new 3.5km high-speed railway into Korat when they want to take their livestock to market. 

Nigel Pike 

Phang Nga 

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