High-speed rail in thailand

highspeed-railHigh-speed rail, or HSR, the elusive dream of successive Thai governments, could be inching closer to reality. But unlike the 21st century rail network the Kingdom hopes to build in the coming years, the Thai HSR story has been a tortuous and painfully slow one.

From Past to Present
The original plans drawn up during the Thaksin Shinawatra government envisioned the first stretch of HSR, between Bangkok and Korat, opening in 2009. For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen. Fast-forward to October last year: Deputy Transport Minister Chatt Kuldiloke boldly predicted that work on the Bangkok to Korat route would begin in 2012. At that time the government also had plans for routes from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Hua Hin and Rayong but were still at the feasibility-study stage. Later that same month plans for the Bangkok to Chiang Mai route seemed to take a step forward as the Japanese government was reported to be looking for a consultant to work on a new feasibility study.

In late December of last year the government affirmed it was committed to developing five HSR routes: Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani, Bangkok to Nong Khai via Korat, Bangkok to Rayong and Bangkok to Padang Besar (Malaysia) via Hua Hin. Priority was to be given to the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route according to Transport Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, and China was said to be interested in the Chiang Mai, Nong Khai and Padang Besar routes.

As recently as May of this year the Japanese were still said to be keen on Bangkok-Chiang Mai and Bangkok to Rayong, too. But that situation changed dramatically in June when the Japanese feasibility study concluded that the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route would be unprofitable. That’s a big blow for the project which was given top priority just months ago.

So, the current situation, as of mid-2012, is still a nascent one. The Transport Ministry is to hold a bidding contest in early 2013 for the construction and running of four shorter routes: Bangkok to Phitsanulok, Hua Hin, Rayong and Korat. Any future HSR deal will be financed through a public-private-partnership (PPP): the government will invest in construction but private companies will run the trains and pay fees to use the tracks.

highspeed-rail2Feasibility and Suitability
The negative results of the Japanese feasibility study perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Studies have shown that HSR is most effective for journeys of two to three hours and trips of less than 650 km. An earlier feasibility study indicated the 745 km Bangkok to Chiang Mai trip would take around 3¾ hours with a ticket price of 1,200 to 1,500 baht. Those figures – the time, the price and the distance – aren’t low enough to make a serious impact on the already highly-developed and competitive Bangkok-Chiang Maiair travel market. By plane, the journey time is a little over an hour, and a one-way ticket can be purchased for 2,000 baht, but special deals sometimes have tickets at half that price or even lower. One carrier was offering tickets for just 800 baht late last year.

The routes to Phitsanulok, Hua Hin, Rayong and Korat are all well under the maximum optimum distance of 650 km; however, the Hua Hin, Rayong and Korat journey times are under the optimum minimum time of two hours for ‘HSR suitability’ (i.e its ability to outperform car and air travel). But HSR can be competitive with cars on much shorter distances in certain circumstances. Such circumstances exist in Thailand where road speeds are slow owing to mixed vehicle traffic, few international-standard highways and heavy congestion in Bangkok.A car journey from the centre of Bangkok to Korat may be completed in 3½-4 hours on a very good day, but the HSR route will take just over 1½ hours with a ticket price of around 400 baht.

HSR is usually seen as a rival for road and air travel rather than for the existing rail network, and those figures suggest it would succeed in tempting some motorists from their cars. Furthermore, a Bangkok to Korat HSR route would surely kill off the tiny and unreliable air service between the two cities. Several small companies have operated the route over the years – Phoenix Air, Happy Air – the latest being Thai Regional Airlines. Passengers have to pay an eye-watering 3,890 baht plus tax for the forty to fifty minute journey in a tiny eight-seatpropeller-powered plane. The viability of the route is not helped by the fact that Nakhon Ratchasima Airport is twenty-five kms east of the city with no direct public transport links, and there are just two services a week. The air option would not survive the advent of an HSR service offering tickets ten-times cheaper and a journey time hardly any longer when airport processing and taxi connections are taken into account.

highspeed-rail3Looking East
The investment and expertise of either the Chinese or Japanese is, of course, crucial. Japan still leads the world in HSR. Work on the world’s first HSR line, Tokyo to Osaka, began as long ago as 1959 and was operational in time for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Since then, Japan’s HSR system, known as Shinkansen, has developed into a near 2,400 km network with a further 1,200 km either under construction or awaiting construction. The success of Shinkansen has been such that air travel from Tokyo to Nagoya, Sendai and Niigata has become obsolete. And the whole Shinkansen network carries more passengers than all other HSR systems in the world combined.

As may be expected of the world’s fastest growing large economy, China already has extensive HSR lines. Indeed, it has the world’s longest HSR network (if HSR is defined as any commercial train service with an average speed of 200 kmph/124 mph). At one point a few years ago plans were in place to have 25,000 km (16,000 mi) of HSR lines operational by 2015, but those plans have been scaled down as China’s economy slows down amid the global economic crisis. However, construction of the Shanghai to Kunming line continues – important from a Thai point of view as Beijing ultimately intends to run an HSR line from Kunming in Yunnan through Vientiane in Laos and onto Bangkok via Nong Khai and Korat.

The Future
In the wake of the Japanese rejection of the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route it now seems that the future of HSR in Thailand will be determined by Beijing rather than Tokyo. It has been suggested that China was always the Thai government’s preferred partner, irrespective of the results of Japanese feasibility studies.

A closer HSR relationship with China certainly seems to suit both parties. The Kunming link is one very good reason. The route, if it ever comes to fruition, will primarily be used for freight, boosting Thailand’s trade with China. Furthermore, it is believed that Chinese advice, expertise and, most importantly, loans, come much cheaper than their Japanese equivalents.

The realization, then, of Thailand’s HSR dream is reliant on the assistance of at least one of East Asia’s two economic powerhouses. The bad news for Thailand is that neither one is experiencing the growth of the past; investment in HSR in a foreign land will hardly be afforded priority status in the current economic climate. Those reservations, however, will be balanced by the returns that investment could bring, particularly through development along the HSR route.

Thailand’s internal political problems shouldn’t be a barrier to HSR development. HSR is one of the very few domestic issues which has both cross-party and general public support. Everyone we talked to in Korat expressed broad approval of HSR but many also questioned where the finance would come from. And the amount of time it has taken just to get to the bidding stage led some to question whether HSR will ever become a reality in Thailand.

We should get an answer to that question early next year when the bidding process begins. At best, 2013 will herald the end of the beginning of the Thai HSR story. At worst, the end of the line.highspeed-railHigh-speed rail, or HSR, the elusive dream of successive Thai governments, could be inching closer to reality. But unlike the 21st century rail network the Kingdom hopes to build in the coming years, the Thai HSR story has been a tortuous and painfully slow one.

From Past to Present
The original plans drawn up during the Thaksin Shinawatra government envisioned the first stretch of HSR, between Bangkok and Korat, opening in 2009. For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen. Fast-forward to October last year: Deputy Transport Minister Chatt Kuldiloke boldly predicted that work on the Bangkok to Korat route would begin in 2012. At that time the government also had plans for routes from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Hua Hin and Rayong but were still at the feasibility-study stage. Later that same month plans for the Bangkok to Chiang Mai route seemed to take a step forward as the Japanese government was reported to be looking for a consultant to work on a new feasibility study.

In late December of last year the government affirmed it was committed to developing five HSR routes: Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani, Bangkok to Nong Khai via Korat, Bangkok to Rayong and Bangkok to Padang Besar (Malaysia) via Hua Hin. Priority was to be given to the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route according to Transport Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, and China was said to be interested in the Chiang Mai, Nong Khai and Padang Besar routes.

As recently as May of this year the Japanese were still said to be keen on Bangkok-Chiang Mai and Bangkok to Rayong, too. But that situation changed dramatically in June when the Japanese feasibility study concluded that the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route would be unprofitable. That’s a big blow for the project which was given top priority just months ago.

So, the current situation, as of mid-2012, is still a nascent one. The Transport Ministry is to hold a bidding contest in early 2013 for the construction and running of four shorter routes: Bangkok to Phitsanulok, Hua Hin, Rayong and Korat. Any future HSR deal will be financed through a public-private-partnership (PPP): the government will invest in construction but private companies will run the trains and pay fees to use the tracks.

highspeed-rail2Feasibility and Suitability
The negative results of the Japanese feasibility study perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Studies have shown that HSR is most effective for journeys of two to three hours and trips of less than 650 km. An earlier feasibility study indicated the 745 km Bangkok to Chiang Mai trip would take around 3¾ hours with a ticket price of 1,200 to 1,500 baht. Those figures – the time, the price and the distance – aren’t low enough to make a serious impact on the already highly-developed and competitive Bangkok-Chiang Maiair travel market. By plane, the journey time is a little over an hour, and a one-way ticket can be purchased for 2,000 baht, but special deals sometimes have tickets at half that price or even lower. One carrier was offering tickets for just 800 baht late last year.

The routes to Phitsanulok, Hua Hin, Rayong and Korat are all well under the maximum optimum distance of 650 km; however, the Hua Hin, Rayong and Korat journey times are under the optimum minimum time of two hours for ‘HSR suitability’ (i.e its ability to outperform car and air travel). But HSR can be competitive with cars on much shorter distances in certain circumstances. Such circumstances exist in Thailand where road speeds are slow owing to mixed vehicle traffic, few international-standard highways and heavy congestion in Bangkok.A car journey from the centre of Bangkok to Korat may be completed in 3½-4 hours on a very good day, but the HSR route will take just over 1½ hours with a ticket price of around 400 baht.

HSR is usually seen as a rival for road and air travel rather than for the existing rail network, and those figures suggest it would succeed in tempting some motorists from their cars. Furthermore, a Bangkok to Korat HSR route would surely kill off the tiny and unreliable air service between the two cities. Several small companies have operated the route over the years – Phoenix Air, Happy Air – the latest being Thai Regional Airlines. Passengers have to pay an eye-watering 3,890 baht plus tax for the forty to fifty minute journey in a tiny eight-seatpropeller-powered plane. The viability of the route is not helped by the fact that Nakhon Ratchasima Airport is twenty-five kms east of the city with no direct public transport links, and there are just two services a week. The air option would not survive the advent of an HSR service offering tickets ten-times cheaper and a journey time hardly any longer when airport processing and taxi connections are taken into account.

highspeed-rail3Looking East
The investment and expertise of either the Chinese or Japanese is, of course, crucial. Japan still leads the world in HSR. Work on the world’s first HSR line, Tokyo to Osaka, began as long ago as 1959 and was operational in time for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Since then, Japan’s HSR system, known as Shinkansen, has developed into a near 2,400 km network with a further 1,200 km either under construction or awaiting construction. The success of Shinkansen has been such that air travel from Tokyo to Nagoya, Sendai and Niigata has become obsolete. And the whole Shinkansen network carries more passengers than all other HSR systems in the world combined.

As may be expected of the world’s fastest growing large economy, China already has extensive HSR lines. Indeed, it has the world’s longest HSR network (if HSR is defined as any commercial train service with an average speed of 200 kmph/124 mph). At one point a few years ago plans were in place to have 25,000 km (16,000 mi) of HSR lines operational by 2015, but those plans have been scaled down as China’s economy slows down amid the global economic crisis. However, construction of the Shanghai to Kunming line continues – important from a Thai point of view as Beijing ultimately intends to run an HSR line from Kunming in Yunnan through Vientiane in Laos and onto Bangkok via Nong Khai and Korat.

The Future
In the wake of the Japanese rejection of the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route it now seems that the future of HSR in Thailand will be determined by Beijing rather than Tokyo. It has been suggested that China was always the Thai government’s preferred partner, irrespective of the results of Japanese feasibility studies.

A closer HSR relationship with China certainly seems to suit both parties. The Kunming link is one very good reason. The route, if it ever comes to fruition, will primarily be used for freight, boosting Thailand’s trade with China. Furthermore, it is believed that Chinese advice, expertise and, most importantly, loans, come much cheaper than their Japanese equivalents.

The realization, then, of Thailand’s HSR dream is reliant on the assistance of at least one of East Asia’s two economic powerhouses. The bad news for Thailand is that neither one is experiencing the growth of the past; investment in HSR in a foreign land will hardly be afforded priority status in the current economic climate. Those reservations, however, will be balanced by the returns that investment could bring, particularly through development along the HSR route.

Thailand’s internal political problems shouldn’t be a barrier to HSR development. HSR is one of the very few domestic issues which has both cross-party and general public support. Everyone we talked to in Korat expressed broad approval of HSR but many also questioned where the finance would come from. And the amount of time it has taken just to get to the bidding stage led some to question whether HSR will ever become a reality in Thailand.

We should get an answer to that question early next year when the bidding process begins. At best, 2013 will herald the end of the beginning of the Thai HSR story. At worst, the end of the line.