Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to the Board Chairman of the State Railway of Thailand, Mr. Chirute Visalachitra, about the RAIL Asia Exhibition in November, high-speed rail in Thailand and regional connection in Southeast Asia…

Thai railways transported around eleven million tonnes of freight per year in 2007-2012, which was around two per cent of the total amount of freight moved by all modes of transportation. How can SRT expand rail’s share of the freight market?

To increase the market share of railway transportation, the government has supported State Railway of Thailand (SRT) infrastructure for track doubling projects. In 2019 SRT completed the construction of double track with the signalling section Chachoengsao to Kaeng Khoi with three Chord lines at Chachoengsao Junction, Kaeng Khoi Junction and Ban Phachi Junction in order to reduce shunting time of locomotive at the junctions. After this track doubling project is completed, SRT will be able to increase the average speed of freight trains in this section from about 26-28 kph to 60 kph, as well as facilitating freight train transportation, reducing fuel costs and other expenses and increasing punctuality and frequency of freight trains.

These improvements will increase the confidence of cargo customers hoping for an increase in freight train service, especially big customers in LPG, Oil and Container transportation between the Inland Container Depot (ICD) Lat Krabang to Laem Chabang Port. SRT assists the private sector in managing the ICD Lat Krabang by offering better service for all freight trains and cooperates with single rail transfer operator (SRTO) at Laem Chabang Port, SRT will be able to increase the amount of railway transportation from 350,000-400,000 TEU per year (TEU average weight of 15 tonnes) to 800,000 TEU per year.

For future transportation, SRT has taken new concepts with JR-Freight company by carrying out a feasibility study into the application of small size containers to the market of Thai consumer goods, including parcel and border transportation between Thailand and neighbouring countries. We are targeting growth in railway transportation in this sector of about 38 million tonnes by 2027.

Regarding our plans for rolling stock, SRT has already supplied 20 electric diesel locomotives for freight train operation since 2015, alongside procuring a bogie flat wagon 308 set in 2016 to support the increased container weight. There are also plans to procure 965 bogies for domestic assembly, there are plans to rent diesel electric locomotives to support track doubling project and new double track lines by 2023. SRT is currently constructing double track railway (phase 1), with a total distance of approximately 1,000 kilometres, including two new double track lines from Den Chai-Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong (323 kilometre) and from Ban Phai-Mukdahan to Nakhon Phanom (355 kilometres). The plan is scheduled for completion by 2024-2025. We expect that the proportion of freight will increase to 4-5 per cent in the future.

Cambodia has stepped up rail enhancement projects in recent years, with the much-publicised link between Bangkok and Phnom Penh drawing closer. How closely do you work with your counterparts in Cambodia when it comes to developing this link?

We are working on a rail system development action plan by connecting railway tracks between Thailand and Cambodia. SRT currently operates a railway route from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet and has restored tracks connecting the two countries with the goal to reopen the link through Cambodia from Aranyaprathet to new station named Ban Khlong Luek Border Station.

On 22 April 2019, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of Thailand and Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia signed a railway agreement to restore the rail link between the two countries at Ban Khlong Luek Border. SRT delivered a diesel rail passenger car to link the rail transportation between Thailand and Cambodia as well as confirming cooperation to interoperate trains in the future.

At present, SRT is ready to work together with Cambodia to achieve a joint design for connecting Ban Khlong Luek Border Station and Poipet Station by first opening train operation between the stations, then extending the track to Si Sophon and Phra Tabong in the next phase. However, Cambodia shall consider providing a signalling and communication system that extends to include solving problems of level crossing between railways and roads. This train link will also help plans to develop special economic zones between the two countries and benefit the deep seaport in the future.

As of 2018, SRT’s network carries around 35 million passengers annually. The passenger count is expected to double by 2027 when expansion plans are realised, can you give us an update on these expansion plans?

SRT passenger trains consist of two types which are public service operations (PSO) trains and commercial trains, which currently have a commercial proportion of 32 per cent of the total number of passengers. SRT focusses on the commercial passenger group, which has approximately 11-12 million passengers a year, because the commercial market income is 90 per cent of total passenger revenue.

The Construction plan of Double Track Railway Project includes installation of a new train control system (phase 1). In total seven routes are under construction and are expected to be completed by 2024, which will increase connection capacity to Bangkok from major provinces near Bangkok to around 250-300 kilometres.

Two new double track lines from Den chai-Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong and from Ban Phai-Mukdahan to Nakhon Phanom are in the process of land expropriation preparation, with the tender for construction coming in 2021.

The procurement plan of 184 BMUs (Bi-mode Multiple Unit) is under approval and will support operations within a radius of 250-300 kilometres. The target is commercial passengers travelling within three hours at an average speed of 90-100 kph and to increase the procurement of more BMUs in the next phase. This BMU will promote the market to a new group of potential customers offering new long-distance services by increasing the capacity of the passenger car in service to 273 by 2025. We may have to improve the marketing of long-distance trains to target customers as the predicted commercial passengers 20 to 22 million people a year by 2027.

Which areas/provinces of Thailand does SRT see as the most important in increasing passenger service?

The major plan is to increase the number of passengers who make journeys of around 250-300 kilometres. SRT is preparing the process for extending electric commuter train (CT) in the red line project area including Rangsit to Thammasart University, Siriraj to Taling Chan to Salaya (Mahidol University), Bang Sue station to Hua Mak station and Bang Sue station to Hua Lamphong station. SRT is also preparing for investment in infrastructure for long-distance (LD) electric trains to other provinces such as Ayutthaya, Nakhon pathom, Chachoengsao, Ratchaburi(Pak Tho district).

Do you have any updates on the new SRT Southern line connecting Thailand to Singapore?

For railway interface between Thailand and Singapore, right now SRT will continue to extend more meter gauge infrastructure which connects to Malaysia and through to Singapore. SRT has finished a feasibility study of a high-speed route from Bangkok to Hua Hin (213 kilometres) then connecting to Padang Besar which is 973 kilometres from Bangkok. The project cost is extremely hight and it not worth the investment.

Last October, a conglomerate led by Thailand’s CP Group signed a contract with SRT for the construction of a high-speed rail line linking Bangkok’s two airports, Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang, with a third airport on the eastern seaboard. Where are we with that project and what can you tell us about it?

SRT already signed the agreement for a high-speed railway linking the three airports with CP Group’s Eastern High-Speed Rail Linking Three Airports Co., Ltd. (EHSR) and is currently preparing the construction area including the relocation of public utilities and carrying out due diligence for the transfer of the airport rail link system to EHSR.

When will we first see high-speed trains operating on Thailand’s railway?

The Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima high-speed train (Phase 1) is already in civil construction process and will be in service by 2025. The high-speed rail linking three airports project (Don Mueang airport – Suvarnabhumi Airport – U-Tapao Airport) will be in service by 2026.

How successful do you think the airport link has been?

The Airport Rail link (ARL) is a successful subsidiary company of SRT and has performed all servicing and maintenance of all systems for more than nine years. SRTET is training staff and maintenance technicians and supports the development of new technician.

SRTET is certified for engineering and maintenance ISO 9001:2015 and certified for operating for electric trains ISO 9001: 2015 in 2020.

The number of ARL passengers has grown from the first year of service in 2010, from 4.7 million passengers then to 26.15 million passengers in 2019.

What are you prioritising for Thailand’s rail development right now? Rail enhancements on old lines, the high-speed rail link with north-eastern Thailand, or connections with other countries?

In the past, SRT lacked continuous improvement, but at present SRT has set a long-term plan to get more support from the Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Finance. The previous and present Government developed a railway plan which established clear guidelines for the development of the country’s railway system. Based on this, the goal is to ensure that railway systems in Thailand will be continuously developed to promote national development and regional development with ASEAN as well as connecting with the People’s Republic of China.

Will Thailand 4.0 see a modal shift from road and air travel to rail? What Government legislation can be enacted to support this?

Smog levels remained at unhealthy levels in Bangkok and Thailand and PM with a diameter of less than 2.5 (PM 2.5) is a problem. Bangkok has many lines of electric train which surely has reduced PM 2.5 and also called people’s attention to use more public transportation. The use of rail instead of road and air transport will increase when the current railway projects are finished.

Is there any appetite to extend the northern line beyond Chiang Mai?

The Government has already approved the construction of a double track railway (meter gauge) as part of a new northern route, between Denchai – Chiang Rai – Chiang Khong. The line passes through Phrae, Phayao, Chiang Rai and reaches the border of Laos PDR at Chiang Khong District with a total distance of 323 kilometres. SRT is preparing the process for the construction tender, with completion expected by 2024.

What is going to happen to Hua Lamphong station?

Bangkok Railway Station (Hua Lamphong) is the centre of the Northern Line, North East Line, South Line and Eastern Line. There are approximately 244 trains a day, with guidelines to reduce the role of service at Bangkok Railway Station. In accordance with the red line electric train project, the historic Hua Lamphong station will not be demolished.

Trains from Northern Lines, Northeast Lines and Southern Lines, between Bang Sue and Bangkok shall be reduced with the new terminal station at Bang Sue Station and Bang Sue Grand Station (Red Line). When the red line extension starts full service, SRT shall reduce all long-distance service trains then transfer to the new EMU service from Bang Sue Grand Station to Bangkok station.

Eastern running trains between Hua Mak – Makkasan – Bangkok will continue to use Bangkok station as the destination station. After the Red Line completed, SRT shall transfer eastern train to the Bang Sue Grand Station.

The Bangkok Railway Station (Hua Lamphong) is an important historic building and is over 100 years old. It is valuable to keep the Bangkok Station as a tourist attraction so it will be turned into a museum and the rail system will be preserved.

Will visitors to RAIL Asia in November have a chance to visit Bang Sue Grand Station and see what the future of Thailand’s rail network will be like?

Bang Sue Grand Station is under construction in November 2020 and hopefully will nearly be complete, then SRT will have a great opportunity to welcome the visitors to RAIL Asia as our special guest at Bang Sue Grand Station.

How will SRT engage with visitors to RAIL Asia this November?

Choosing Thailand to be the host of RAIL Asia event has created synergies between Thai companies and overseas companies through meetings, conferences, seminars and site visits. All of which will spur future improvement in the railway network across ASEAN.

SRT hosts and supports RAIL Asia at Makkasan Expo Halls as the business and knowledge platform for the industry bringing together the world’s leading suppliers and Southeast Asia’s rail professionals and looks forward to welcoming the industry professionals to Bangkok this year.