Transport agency gets expanded role
The Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning (OTP) has been tasked with playing a significant role in the government's logistics infrastructure investment, of which the four high-speed train projects are the highlight.Aside from the designing, the OTP will see itself involved with project implementation in the initial stage as well as the shaping of national traffic and transport management in the provinces where the train stations would be located, according to Chula Sukmanop, director-general of the office.
"We've been asked to come up with traffic management plans in big cities like Nakhon Ratchasima and Phitsanulok. These cities need plans to accommodate the higher number of commuters and cargo transportation," he said in an interview.
The OTP was established with the responsibility to submit policies, formulate transport and traffic plans, and work out transport safety measures that are consistent with the master plan so as to bring about unity of the national transport and traffic policy. However, for years, its role has been limited to policy formulation, leaving the implementation to national and local governments.
A bigger role was envisioned at a time when the State Railway of Thailand's poor financial and management situation were considered non-supportive of the investment.
Of the total budget of Bt2.27 trillion, 64 per cent will fund 31 rail-related projects. Four high-speed train projects will see more than Bt400 billion in investment, taking seven years to complete.
According to Chula, the designing and environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the four projects are being undertaken at the same time, to meet Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's plan to put all the four routes under auction within the third quarter of this year. The nationwide public hearing was kicked off today, starting in Phitsanulok and Chiang Mai for the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route. Public hearings for the other routes (Bangkok-Nong Khai, Bangkok-Rayong and Bangkok-Hua Hin) will follow.
While the government will borrow and invest in the tracks, carriages could be opened up for bidding under the public-private partnership (PPP).
According to Chula, a foreign consulting firm is now working on the possibility of creating an organisation to operate the high-speed trains. This organisation will enjoy some autonomy like Thai Airways International and Airports of Thailand, for flexibility in investment and operations. In the next stage, this organisation could be listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand.
For now, all three routes, except Bangkok-Rayong that will be supervised by the SRT, will be under the OTP's care.
"Once all the routes are completed, they would be supervised by the new organisation," Chula said.
The chief does not anticipate much problem in land expropriation and EIA of the projects, given that the routes would be built on existing SRT land. The rights over the land would be transferred to the new organisation, while the government would assume Bt100 billion worth of the SRT's debt in return. Any problem in the EIA would concern the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route, which will require tunnels to allow straight tracks and high speed.
In provinces with train stations, feeder systems would be planned.
The Bang Sue train station in Bangkok will be upgraded to become a hub for the high-speed train system. According to Chula, this requires an improvement in the transport and traffic system in the capital.
In 2019, six new electric train lines will be completed. Bangkok will be then connected by 10 electric train lines. Bidding for the Pink Line is scheduled for this year. The OTP has studied a single ticketing system for all 10 lines. Over the next 10 years, public transportation is expected to serve 55 per cent of commuters, and 45 per cent by personal vehicles. At present, 55 per cent is by personal vehicles.
"Commuters' behaviour has changed. Many car owners now board the BTS, which promises quicker and more certain services," he said.
Coming with the new train lines is an overhaul of the bus routes. Public buses would be geared towards housing estates to train stations.
"The traffic map must be changed, given that no new road can be constructed given the high land expropriation cost. What we can do in Bangkok is to build shortcuts, tunnels and bridges, all just to facilitate traffic flows," he said.