Go-Ahead for High-Speed Thai Rail Link Set to Boost Belt and Road

09 Aug 17

With work beginning on the Bangkok-Nong Khai link, rapid pan-Asian rail connectivity looks set to become a reality.

Photo: Thailand on track: Can high-speed rail links deliver a tourism and economic dividend?
Thailand on track: Can high-speed rail links deliver a tourism and economic dividend?
Photo: Thailand on track: Can high-speed rail links deliver a tourism and economic dividend?
Thailand on track: Can high-speed rail links deliver a tourism and economic dividend?

A key element of the High Speed Rail (HSR) connectivity plan for Asia, an integral part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was given the go-ahead early last month. This saw the Thai government formally authorise work to begin on phase one of the Bangkok-Nong Khai HSR project, an essential link in the overall network.

Back in 2016, work began on the much-delayed Kunming-Laos link, another key component of the wider network. More recently, Indonesia approved the Jakarta-Bandung HSR route. Meanwhile, the tender process for the 90-minute Singapore-Kuala Lumpur railway is set to commence in Singapore and Malaysia, with the project scheduled for completion by 2026.

In the case of the Bangkok-Nong Khai HSR link, this four-year, THB179 billion (US$5.3 billion) project will result in the creation of a 253km rail connection between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima, the Thai city seen as the gateway to neighbouring Laos. In total, six stations will be constructed along the route – Bang Sue, Don Mueang, Ayutthaya, Saraburi, Pak Chong and Nakhon Ratchasima.

The line actually forms the first part of a three-stage project that will ultimately connect with Nong Khai and then Kaeng Khoi (Sara Buri)-Map Ta Phut (Rayong). At present, no schedule has been agreed for the completion of the final two phases.

Although phase one is primarily being financed from within Thailand, the Thai government is reportedly in negotiations with the Export-Import Bank of China with regard to financing the required high-speed rolling stock. The overall plan is for Thai firms to build the track, while China will supply the trains and signal systems, and provide technical support.

The long-term objective is to establish a trans-Asia high-speed rail link capable of delivering a journey time of just four hours between Bangkok and Vientiane, the Lao capital. Beyond Laos, the proposed link would then extend to Kunming in southwest China, feeding into the mainland's rapidly expanding inter-city HSR network, which had about 22,000km of track as of the end of 2016. Heading south from Bangkok, the high-speed link would also significantly reduce journey times to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Although the negotiations and many of the approval processes have proved to be slow and have faced frequent delays, Thailand remains committed to the proposed high-speed link, seeing it as set to play a key role in its own future economic growth. In the first quarter of 2017, boosted by recovering export levels, the Thai economy expanded by 3.3%, its fastest quarterly growth for four years. Despite this recent rally, the country's economic growth has been trailing its regional peers since 2014.

In 2016, the Thai economy grew 3.2%, with the Asian Development Bank predicting a 3.5% increase for 2017, rising to 3.6% in 2018. Although representing something of an uptick, these figures are still below the projected ASEAN average and remain significantly down on the 7.2% growth the country recorded back in 2012.

The advantages offered by the country's geographic location are central to its hopes of a sustained economic upturn. Set at the heart of continental Southeast Asia, Thailand shares borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, with the latter sharing a land border with Singapore, home to the world's second-busiest port. With a population of about 69 million and highly developed logistics and finance resources, Thailand is also seen as perfectly positioned to capitalise on the benefits of the free movement of people, products and capital guaranteed under the constitution of the ASEAN Economic Community.

It is also hoped that enhanced rail connectivity will boost tourism, which currently accounts for about 11% of Thai GDP. The country has already committed itself to becoming “the tourism hub of Southeast Asia” and has made considerable progress in terms of delivering on that. In 2016, for instance, it welcomed 32.6 million visitors, generating THB1.64 trillion in revenue. It is now looking to attract ever-increasing numbers of high-spending visitors from China, India and from throughout the ASEAN bloc.

At present, the Tourism Authority of Thailand is strongly promoting the country as a holiday destination in many of the mainland's second-tier and third-tier cities, having identified them as China's primary source of next generation tourists. Last year, about 8.8 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, while the ASEAN bloc accounted for further 8.6 million visitors. Although the total number of tourists was up for the first half of 2017 year-on-year, the level of mainland visitors dropped by 3.83%.

This was largely seen as the consequence of a crackdown on so-called 'zero-dollar' trips – cheap packages offered to Chinese group travellers who are then pressured into spending at high-priced shopping and dining outlets by commission-only tour agents. Despite the disappointing figures, however, China remains – by a considerable margin – Thailand's number-one tourism source, followed by Malaysia, South Korea and Laos.

With the country's commitment to the pan-Asian HSR project now confirmed, its position as the connective hub for Southeast Asia's emerging high-speed rail links brings the transformation of rail transport across the continent one step closer. That promises to be good news for the wider tourist industry, as well as for exporters and importers across the region.

Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Bangkok

Comments (9)

Guest 23 Mar 18

Construction is quite advanced at Khon Kaen, with elevated sections built, waitng for track and infrastructure to be laid.

Guest 09 Mar 18

Whether Don Mueang airport is more difficult to get to than Bangkok's central Hualamphong railway station rather depends on where you start from within Bangkok. There is at least an elevated highway to Don Mueang and the airport will be connected to the elevated BTS rail network within the next year or so. But once there the sheer choice of destinations both domestic and international within 2 hours flying time and the choice of budget carriers offering unbelievably low fares is just amazing. A high speed passenger train network can never compete on price because, with the exception of Bangkok, the towns and cities served are simply too small. For example: Nakhon Rachasima population 166,000. Vientiene 210,000. Furthermore the vast majority of tourists to Thailand only go to Pattaya, Phuket, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Krabi. Other destinations hold very little interest. I can understand the benefits of a pan Asia freight service but a high speed rail passenger network still taking many more hours than air makes no logistical or financial sense. The Thai government will find itself subsidizing it to the tune of trillions of baht/year. Either that or the trains will run empty, which will cost even more.

Guest 09 Mar 18

While it focuses on the benefits to tourism, the article does not mention freight traffic. Land transport alternatives are needed to transport freight because Asian countries do not control their sea lanes, a potential source of future conflict. These overland routes will provide 'non sea' alternatives and greatly encourage freight traffic and trade in the region.

Guest 08 Mar 18

Just marvel at Japan's rail system and wish you had this in your country...No more needs to be said.

Guest 08 Mar 18

thanks, this is great opportunity..... kick off and play..... appreciate... jm...

Guest 06 Feb 18

Don Mueang airport in Bangkok is a good example for the previous commenter. It is the Bangkok base for the low-cost airlines, but transport to and from the city centre is very poor and slow. It looks, however, as if the construction of the highspeed train to compete with the airlines will also actually provide the city center link that Don Mueang so sorely lacks!

Guest 27 Jan 18

None of the airports that would be served by this new high speed rail link even take one hour to get to from their respective city centres. In Bangkok the budget airlines all operate out of Don Mueang and any new rail link from the centre would pass right by the airport on its way north, so no advantage there. Vientiene airport - a mere 3 kms from city centre. Changi Airport - about 30 mins to centre of Singapore by taxi. KL airport is a log way out of KL but it is served by a high speed rail link - 28 minutes. Long distance train travel simply cannot compete either time-wise or cost- wise with air travel over more than 500 kms.

Guest 22 Jan 18

However, travelling to the airports in most SE Asia countries from the cities can take 2-3 hours so although there is a demand for flying many are seeking a centre to centre connection without a long taxi trip in traffic queues.

Guest 16 Jan 18

Only one problem. Low cost airlines throughout Thailand and Malaysia now offer a huge and ever increasing range of destinations throughoutSE Asia at breathtakingly low prices. Bangkok to KL in 2 hours for under 1,600 baht, a mere $50. Bangkok to Vientiane in 1 hour 2,000 baht ($62). Even Thailand decrepit buses can hardly compete at these prices. There is no way high speed trains costing costing 179 billion baht just to build, let alone run, can compete against these kind of prices without a subsidy level that will be a massive drain on Thai government finances. A freight only connection might make sense, but a passenger link? Forget it.