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perspective

Airport Rail Link a model of failure


Tomorrow's decision will affect 50,000 passengers and underlines problems plaguing Thailand's infrastructure projects

The Airport Rail Link has faced an identity crisis from the start. During the past four years the service has failed to fulfil its tasks of taking tourists to and from the airport and serving city commuters. Now accumulating maintenance problems have escalated to being beyond repair. The public was stunned to learn that the system could be shut for a year if management can’t find another solution to get the trains running again.
Tomorrow the Airport Rail Link (ARL) committee will make a decision that will affect tens of thousands of people. After four years’ service and close to their
1.3-million-kilometre limit, the trains are in urgent need of maintenance to ensure passenger safety. The ARL operator had earlier pulled four of the nine trains out of service, causing delays and increasing the workload for the equipment still in operation. Now the four trains remaining in use also need to be taken off the track for major overhaul. Ensuring routine maintenance is a basic duty for any transport operator, but ARL management has left it far too late. It takes seven or eight months for spare parts to be delivered once the order is placed, and no such order has yet been placed.
The complacency doesn’t end there.
The ARL board is now dithering over whether to take a shortcut by borrowing spare parts or finding a more immediate source. The operator has invited bids for the urgent maintenance work, but that process has also faced problems and the situation drags on with no solution in sight.
The airport train has been a disaster waiting to happen from the beginning, passenger complaints emerging on Day One. The design of the carriages fails to accommodate tourists loaded with luggage and isn’t fully accessible to disabled riders. Delays are common. Customer interest waned. The airline check-in counter introduced at Makkasan station has since been scrapped due to lack of customers.
With safety concerns also now looming, management has been keen to charge its predecessors with neglecting much-needed maintenance. But the fact is that, from the time the Thaksin administration signed the first contracts in 2005 to its official opening in 2014, no one seems to have had any sensible plans for this infrastructure project. Surprisingly, maintenance and safety requirements were not a priority of the existing plan, which also fails to encompass the financial losses.
Everyone behind the project should be held accountable for these failures. They must have known about the running limit of the trains, and that the delivery of spare parts from its maker, Siemens, takes seven or eight months. Such simple facts should not escape capable managers. But, instead, the ARL board’s mishandling of the situation threatens to cause not only safety concerns but also severe inconvenience.
The Airport Rail Link should become a case study for every government. We were offered a hard lesson two decades ago with the disastrous Hopewell elevated-train project. Now the airport train is another clear case of infrastructure mismanagement. Elsewhere, governments not only efficiently plan train projects but also maximise earnings by developing land around the stations. In Hong Kong, for example, the government reaps commercial benefit from shopping malls and other moneymaking ventures around its infrastructure projects. This revenue can then be used to offset any operational losses. More importantly, the whole process must be carried out with transparency.
Thailand might not be as advanced in these matters as Hong Kong, but we can at least take a close look at the Airport Rail Link and learn from its failure. Before we embark on a high-speed train project or any other large-scale infrastructure construction, let’s scrutinise the mistakes made in previous projects to help ensure that history does not keep repeating.

Published : September 17, 2014

By : The Nation