“Despite Progress, Challenges Remain for Thailand-China High Speed Rail Project” by Pongphisoot Busbarat

2017/42, 17 July 2017
On 11 July 2017, the Thai cabinet finally approved construction of the country’s first high-speed railway (HSR) after nineteen rounds of negotiation with China, going back to 2014. Under pressure from Beijing, Prime Minister Prayut Chanocha bypassed the legal bottlenecks that had stymied progress on the project by invoking his decree powers under the controversial Section 44 of the junta’s interim constitution.

The first phase of the project, due for completion within four years, will cover the 250 kilometers from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima in the Northeast. A second phase is due to run to Nongkhai and to connect to the China-Laos HSR. A final phase will connect Saraburi to the port of Maptaphut on Thailand’s eastern seaboard. Successive Thai governments have emphasized the importance of the HSR to upgrading the country’s outdated and inefficient infrastructure and to simulating economic activity outside of the Bangkok area. They have also associated the HSR with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, promising that Thailand can become a regional logistic hub in Mainland Southeast Asian that links China, the Mekong Sub-region, Malaysia and Singapore.

Members of the Thai public have questioned the economic viability of the HSR and called attention to its potential negative impacts. Efficient connections between the HSR and extant train lines and major transport terminals will be crucial to that viability. In addition, the HSR will not in itself bring development to remote regions of the country. That goal will require a series of complementary policies on the part of Bangkok. Further, its extremely limited length means that the first phase of the project is not likely to attract many passengers and freight to the HSR from existing modes of transport. Cars, buses or local trains may still be more economical, especially for low-income passengers. For travelers to or from locations further away from Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand’s popular budget airlines will remain more cost-competitive. Completion of the second and third phases of the project, connecting the China-Thailand to the China-Laos HSR and to the Eastern Seaboard lies many years in the future. The expected benefits of the project in turning Thailand into a regional logistics hub is thus, at best, a long-term prospect.
The issue of transparency has raised public concern about on the construction and management of the project. General Prayut’s use of Section 44 has already overridden several regulations relating to procurement. The possibility of corruption raises the risk of a project of only suboptimal quality. Moreover, land expropriation may violate people’s rights without any effective legal protections. Despite the fact that the government promises that land expropriation will be minimal and that compensation will be at market prices, there is no guarantee of people’s rights under the current regime.

Source: Train Lines Drawn by Author on Google Maps

Dr Pongphisoot Busbarat is Visiting Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.