Thai govt okays $7b high-speed rail despite criticisms

Cabinet approves funding after PM Prayut invokes absolute powers to clear hurdles

The Thai Cabinet has approved the 179 billion-baht (S$7.25 billion) first phase of a high-speed rail (HSR) project that will be funded by Thailand and built by China, with the military-led government setting aside criticisms against the plan.

The Cabinet approved the funding on Tuesday for the 252km line between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima province, also known as Korat in north-east Thailand.

The approval came about after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o- cha invoked his absolute powers last month, clearing a series of legal and technical hurdles blocking the deal.

"The Cabinet has approved phase one of the high-speed railway... from Bangkok to Korat with a 179 billion-baht budget for a four-year plan," said Dr Kobsak Pootrakool from the Prime Minister's office.

A second phase of the HSR is being planned to continue from Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai in the Laos border but no timeframe has been given.

The government envisions that the railway would eventually link with a China-Laos railway, allowing travellers to make the trip between Bangkok and the Lao capital of Vientiane in only four hours, and travel all the way to Kunming in China.

  • Government versus critics

  • The Thai government is going ahead with a controversial 179 billion baht (S$7.25 billion) high-speed rail (HSR) project linking Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima province, 252km away in the north-east. Facts about the HSR and the views against the project are listed below.

    GOVERNMENT PROJECT

    •Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha invokes Article 44, giving him absolute power to decide on the project.

    •The HSR will be funded by Thailand and built by China.

    •The line will have six stations and top speed of 250kmh.

    •The railway is to start operating by 2021, with a maximum fare of 535 baht.

    •A second phase is being planned to continue from Nakhon Ratchasima to the Laos border, with no timeframe given on its construction.

    •HSR cuts down travel time to 1 hour 17 minutes, from at least four hours by bus.

    CRITICS' VIEWS

    •The deal is on government-to-government basis, with no open tender called.

    •The project's high costs will add heavily to government debt.

    •There is no ready road network at the Nakhon Ratchasima terminus station to bring people and goods to other parts of the country.

    •China will likely bring in its own architects, engineers and workers, thus sidelining Thais.

    •Thai engineers want the government to pressure China to set up a HSR equipment testing facility to ensure technology transfer.

    Yasmin Lee Arpon

The Singapore and Malaysian governments are also planning to build a HSR line. It will link Jurong to Kuala Lumpur, a distance of 350km, with the trains having a top speed of 350kmh.

The Thai plan, which was presented by the Ministry of Transport to the Cabinet on Tuesday, indicates that there will be six stations from Bangkok's Bang Sue Station to Nakhon Ratchasima, with trains running at a maximum speed of 250kmh.

Critics say the Thai HSR project has not been carefully thought out.

The Thai Chamber of Commerce (TCC) said there is no road network linking the line's Nakhon Ratchasima station to other parts of the country, if it was meant to bring goods or people from the terminus station into neighbouring provinces or countries.

"You have to do everything in parallel; you can't just start this first then the rest later," TCC vice-chairman Jingjai Hanchanlash told The Straits Times.

He added that it would have been more economically viable for the government to consider a cargo route to help transport goods like vegetables to neighbouring countries. He noted that 30 per cent of Thailand's agricultural products are wasted due to lack of infrastructure to transport them.

"The economic value of the project is very hard to tell, depending on how you look at it. If you're talking about transporting people, there's none. You already have low-cost airlines as competition. But if you're talking about transporting perishable products, there are benefits," Mr Jingjai said.

The project also faced criticism as Mr Prayut invoked Article 44 that granted him absolute powers to okay the plan, with no open tender called.

"While invoking Article 44 may accelerate the implementation of the high-speed rail, having an open bidding process is part of global good public investment practices to improve public infrastructure management," the World Bank said in a statement e-mailed to The Straits Times.

 

  • 252km

    Length of the high-speed rail (HSR) line between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima province.

    S$7.25b

    Budget for first phase of the project.

Yet others are wary that China would use its architects and engineers for the project while sidelining Thai experts.

The Thai government says the railway is expected to start operating by 2021 and will cut down travel time to 1 hour and 17 minutes for just 535 baht. It currently takes four to five hours by bus for the same distance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2017, with the headline 'Thai govt okays $7b high-speed rail despite criticisms'. Print Edition | Subscribe