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