Rail network key for urban planning, experts push for dual-track system

national August 14, 2014 01:00

By Sasithorn Ongdee
The Nation

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Hope NCPO will succeed in implementing what previous govts have failed to do

Urban planning could be more effectively shaped if the nationwide railway network gets on the right track under the policy plans of the ruling junta, a seminar heard last week.

Though Bt2.4 trillion-worth of transportation mega-investment projects have been given approval by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), massive works related to the Kingdom’s railway development – many of which have remained unresolved for decades – are lining up, according to experts.

Speaking at last week’s “How to develop the country’s rail system” seminar, academics and representatives from agencies urged the NCPO to grasp the opportunity for a massive change in rail-system development to also shape city expansion and boost the economy.

“We are confident that the NCPO understands that rail development is not just a matter of railroad construction, but also of other issues related to the economy, as they all go altogether,” said Taweesak Koanantakool, president of the National Science and Technology Development Agency.

All speakers said that a nationwide dual-track railroad system should be developed as soon as possible, as Thailand has some 4,000 kilometres of railways, but 93 per cent of them remain single-track.

Decision required

Whether the dual-track width should be a 1-metre or 1.435-metre gauge always comes up for discussion when there is a change of government, but no administration has to date been able to reach a decision, they said.

Under the ruling junta, however, it seems that both gauges will feature in development plans.

Under an eight-year plan, six dual-track railways – out of a total of 17 routes – come with a 1-metre gauge, as the first phase is aimed at resolving the problem of congestion.

These railways are also designed for the domestic network and to connect to neighbouring countries’ own networks of one-metre gauge railways.

Meanwhile, the planned two new railways with a 1.435-metre gauge – which will carry high-speed trains of up to 160km per hour – are designed to link with southern China.

City planning should be also designed to be line with the new railways, which will have to be accepted and participated in by the communities, said Taweesak.

As in other countries and territories such as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, transit-oriented development should be adopted into the rail network in a way that can help railway developers survive, as about 80 per cent of the total cost is for railroad-infrastructure construction, and the remainder for rolling stock.

Another crucial matter is that the state will have to consider whether the country should develop and produce the rail network by itself, which would mean that the additional gross domestic product created is not just repatriated to another state, said Narong Pomlakthong, former researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute.

A clear policy is required on whether the railway-related industry should be developed domestically or solely imported, he said, adding, “We have to ask, if rail-system development is a necessity for the state, is the corporate sector ready?”

While Thai companies cannot manufacture the rail tracks, they can make key products such as concrete railroad sleepers and railroad switches, said Pipat Lorach, senior vice president for the Railway Business Unit of Italian-Thai Development.

Moreover, the law on land expropriation should be reformed in order to unlock railway operators’ restricted usage of expropriated land, the seminar was told.

The three operators – the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand and Bangkok Mass Transit System – are prohibited from using expropriated land commercially for non-rail related businesses, for example, for developing complexes on station sites for sale and/or rental purposes.

If they had the freedom to do this, rail operators would find it easier to survive thanks to the extra income generated from non-rail businesses, rather than depending on track-rental income.

A regulatory body – a department of rail transport – should be set up, academics told the seminar.

“Now’s the right time to push for an SRT reshuffle in order to create more efficiency by separating the corporate sphere from the public sphere. Not yet spinning off initially, but the business model will have to go against the [model that has led to the] financial fiasco the SRT has been in,” said Narong.

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