Bidding wars begin early next year in the battle for the mammoth contract to supply Thailand with four high-speed train systems, thus allowing the Bangkok-Pattaya link to be running by 2019—if not sooner. Under current plans, the Pattaya route will be extended to Rayong in phase two some years later.
Chula Sukmanpop, transport director general, said international train suppliers would present their various technologies later this year for the government to pick just one system for all routes. Companies from China, Japan and Europe are keen to supply the trains; China is thought to be the front runner because Beijing already runs the longest bullet train route in the world – from the capital city to Guangzhou, which covers 2,298 kilometres in eight hours.
However, critics say that the bold plan to spend 983 billion baht on four high-speed trains in Thailand depends on the success of the government’s controversial plan to borrow two trillion baht. Opposition spokesmen in Parliament have vowed to oppose the bill on the grounds of indebtedness and potential corruption, preferring that the cost be borne out of normal budgetary procedures.
Almost half of the government’s two trillion baht infrastructure loan plan would be spent on high-speed trains initially linking Bangkok with Phitsanulok, Nakhon Ratchasima, Hua Hin and Pattaya by the end of this decade. No final decision has been taken on which route will be the first to open. Decisions about the exact location of stations and whether the high-speed train tracks will run alongside existing rails are not yet under detailed discussion.
Many rail experts believe that the given time-scale is too tight because of the enormous bureaucracies involved in the mammoth plan. “No bullet train in the world runs at a profit with just fare-paying passengers. There will need to be a big switch from road to rail as regards freight, and we have no idea yet of the cost implications,” said an official of the State Railway of Thailand. He added that high-speed trains would not be immune from flooding problems which currently cause rail closures from time to time.
Pattaya City Hall said that the proposed high-speed train would be vital for Pattaya’s next stage of development and turn it into a five-star resort destination, in effect a suburb of Bangkok with travel time of less than an hour. However, the spokesperson was unable to confirm 2018 as a likely completion date. The oft-repeated suggestion to add U Tapao airport to the Pattaya section is understood to be part of phase two in the 2020s.
Given that Thailand’s economic future is closely tied to ASEAN partners and to China’s growing might, it is inevitable that new-generation rail networks over time will link together Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. The Thai government’s current proposals can be seen as a first step in what could be an investment programme lasting decades. Thus, Pattaya is a very small cog in an enormous wheel which hasn’t yet started to turn.