Constitution Court Judge: High speed rail not necessary for Thailand
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Constitution Court Judge: High speed rail not necessary for Thailand

First, some background, before the Constitution Court is the 2 trillion baht (US$60.5bn) infrastructure project which will borrow money over several years to spend on various infrastructure projects. For example:

42.7% for High speed trains

24.9% for Bangkok metro/subway

15% for Road upgrades

14.4% for Train (non-highspeed) upgrades

1.6% for Sea ports

1.5% for Cargo stations and custom houses at borders

The Thai government has set a goal to reduce logistics costs per GDP by 2% (currently at 15.2%) and gradually shift the transport modal from road to rail.

The grand ambition of the highspeed train project is linking Southeast Asia to China – namely from Singapore to Kunming in China’s southwestern Yunnan province.

BP: Some of the details changed, but the overall rationale for the entire project is available in English from a presentation by the Transport Minister which can be found here. Specifically on overall policy see Pansak Vinyaratn, Chief Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister, who gave a presentation a few months ago. A PDF of his presentation is available here and video here. The most controversial part ishigh speed rail.*

After it passed in the Senate, the Democrats filed a Constitutional Court challenge against the 2 trillion baht infrastructure spending – see here and here –  and yesterday in testimony one of the Constitutional Court judges stated (video is here and is from around 1:54 onwards):

These things are things that need to be thought about in advance (สิ่งเหล่านี้เป็นสิ่งที่เราต้องคิดล่วงหน้า); not just for Thailand, but also on a regional level and international level to see if it is worthwhile (ไม่ใช่คิดเฉพาะประเทศไทย ต้องคิดถึงระดับภูมิภาค ระดับอนุภูมิภาค ระดับสากลด้วย มันถึงจะคุ้มนะครับ)

These things, I think that if we are do them, they cannot be done in one night. If talking about the 2 trillion in order to bring in the high speed [rail] system. If about dual tracks, I won’t say a single word about it and we don’t need to waste any time on this. Dual tracks are very important. No need to waste time on changing lines/tracks like with trams in the past (สิ่งเหล่านี้ ผมถึงว่า ถ้าเราจะทำเนี่ย มันไม่สามารถที่จะทำได้ในชั่วคืนเดียว แล้วก็มาพูด สองล้านล้านเพื่อจะเอาระบบความเร็วสูงมา ถ้าระบบรางคู่เนี่ย ผมจะไม่พูดซักคำเดียวนะครับ และก็ไม่ต้องเสียเวลามานั่งอยู่ตรงนี้ด้วย รางคู่เนี่ยจำเป็นมาก ไม่ต้องไปเสียเวลาไปสับหลีก เหมือนแบบระบบรถรางสมัยก่อน)

Highways are the same; ASEAN highway, ESCAP has studied this issue for 20-30 years and it has not been done because of internal problems (ไฮเวย์เหมือนกัน เอเชียนไฮเวย์ เอสแคปเค้าศึกษามาเป็นยี่สิบสามสิบปีเค้ายังทำไม่ได้ เพราะมีปัญหาติดขัดภายใน). Gravel roads should be gone from Thailand first. Make them asphalt or something like that first (ถนนลูกรังให้หมดไปจากประเทศไทยก่อน ทำแอสฟัลหรืออะไรต่างๆให้เสร็จก่อน) before thinking about high speed [rail]. For high speed [rail], my personal opinion is that is that it is not really necessary for Thailand (ก่อนที่จะไปคิดถึงเรื่องระบบความเร็วสูง ความเร็วสูงเนี่ย ผมโดยส่วนตัวนะ มันยังไม่ค่อยจำเป็นสำหรับประเทศไทยเลยนะ) and the 2 trillion Baht if [Transport Minister] Chadchart dies and is reborn then even for his children then the money will still not be paid [back] (และเงินกู้สองล้านล้านน่ะ คุณชัชชาติตายไปเกิดใหม่มารุ่นลูกรุ่นหลานก็ยังใช้เงินไม่หมดเลย)

BP: Another judge raised the issue of sufficiency economy, but the above is enough to critique.

First, the Judge seems to be confused about his role. He is not the policy expert. He is not the opposition. He is trying to apply a value judgment and that we should wait until there are no gravel roads before even thinking about high speed rail. Should Thailand have mobile phones even though not everyone in the country has landlines? Should we have 3G even though not everywhere in the country has 2G? Sure, it is a political argument that could be made, but what on earth is a judge doing saying this in a court. It just goes to show how out of control the judiciary is. It is like nothing can be done anymore without the judiciary giving their approval. This is an unelected body who have veto power over everything.

Second, the judge states it is necessary to look at regional and international level. Has the judge done this? Thailand has been in talks with China for a while on this issue over successive governments.

The Nation in August 2012:
During the tenure of the previous Democrat government, China and Thailand reached a preliminary agreement to cooperate on the high-speed train project, as China aims to link its southern region with the mainland Asean countries.
DPA in March 2013:
 A high-speed rail link between Bangkok and Nong Khai in north-eastern Thailand was a key campaign promise of the Democrat Party for the 2010 election
Reuters in August 2011:
Thailand’s new government unveiled a revised plan for the country’s high-speed train network on Tuesday, prioritising domestic rail expansion over an ambitious regional connectivity plan being spearheaded by China.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced during her inaugural policy speech to parliament that three routes would be constructed linking Bangkok with urban centres in the north, northeast and upper south.

The plan differs from that of the previous Democrat Party-led government, which wanted one high-speed line connecting Bangkok with Nong Khai province bordering Laos, some 615 km (382 miles) away, followed by a second line stretching 980 km south of the capital to Padang Basar at the Malaysian border.

The previous Thai government had agreed in principal to borrow $400 million from China, which would be spent on materials to construct the high-speed railways, with Chinese engineers providing expertise.

MCOT in April 2013:

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra gave reassurances that Thailand’s high-speed train will reach the northeastern province of Nong Khai to connect Thailand with the Lao PDR and China.

Meeting Lao Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on Wednesday, the Thai premier said she looks forward to a tripartite cooperation to develop infrastructure for communication and transport among Thailand, the Lao PDR and China.

The Economist on September 2013:

So last week China and Laos reaffirmed their commitment to make the proposed 260-mile (418-kilometre) passenger and freight railway between Kunming and Vientiane a reality. The project’s price tag is to be nearly as big as Laos’s formal economy: $6.2 billion plus interest. It will take an estimated 50,000 Chinese workers five years to build it. An astonishing two-thirds of the route will run through tunnels and over bridges. Strung together, the 76 tunnels that the national assembly of Laos has agreed to let China dig would be 196km long.

The scale of the longer-term railway project can seem daunting. The Chinese are looking for reassurances from Thailand’s government that it will do its bit, so that China does not lay tracks to Vientiane in vain. Thailand’s government intends to spend about 2 trillion baht ($64 billion) to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, including its railways, by 2020. The Chinese probably needn’t worry about the spending priorities of the current government, which is headed by Yingluck Shinawatra.

The Economist in October 2013:

China has been looking for reassurances from Ms Yingluck’s government that Thailand’s future really can be expected to pull into the station by 2020. That is when China plans to connect Vientiane, the capital of Laos, to Thailand. In the meantime China plans to sink $6.2 billion into a passenger and freight railway that will run from Kunming to Vientiane, tunnelling through 196km of mountains to get there. A Swiss man based in Vientiane remarks that in his country a project on this scale would be called a Jahrhundertprojekt, “a project of the century”. China’s clock however, runs faster: they are giving it five years.

On October 12th Ms Yingluck and Li Keqiang (pictured facing one another, at the left), the prime minister of China, stood together at a press event, to gaze at a model train and then into the future of high-speed railway magic—on a large screen, in Bangkok.

BP: So has the Court considered this? This is why we leave these things to the government; otherwise we might as well have the Chinese negotiate directly with the Court.

*On government sites, cost-benefit analysis show the routes will make a return – some of these studies are from under the previous government – but BP is a little skeptical on the number of passengers they expect. Nevertheless, we are not looking at 7 years in reality because of planning; it is more like 12-15 years. BP’s preferred choice would be to more promptly build one line first. That is from Bangkok to Rayong (Eastern Seaboard). It is basically from the new airport to Rayong which is a distance of around 220 km (new airport to central Bangkok central will be covered by the current Airport Link mass transit system). This route passes through Chachoengsao, Chonburi, Pattaya, and Rayong. This route makes sense for a number of reasons: (1) short enough distance so there is no plane option currently, (2) will be good for tourism (you can go from airport to Pattaya in 30 minutes on a safe form of transport), and (3) many businesses located in Chonburi and Rayong (i.e Eastern seaboard and other industrial estates including Mathaphut ) they will have a convenient and safe form of transport to Bangkok, Chonburi etc.

The whole trip would take around 75 minutes. This route just makes sense. It is first route likely to be built. New feasibility studies are underway already and the plans seem most advanced compared to the other three routes.

For the other three  routes, BP is skeptical. Unfortunately, little of the analysis BP has read has convinced BP either way. CSFB who have been widely quoted are particularly pessimistic on high-speed rail. Major problem BP has with CSFB analysis is they focus on comparing rail with flights and from end-to-end only. For example, they don’t look at Bangkok to Rayong route as there are no flights (yes, they ignore this route completely in payback period calculations!). Or when looking at the Bangkok-Chiang Mai line, they only focus on Bangkok-Chiang Mai passengers. Problem with this is the train will stop in many major cities between Bangkok-Chiang Mai including Ayuthaya, Lopburi,Nakhon Sawan, Phichit etc. There are no airport options to those cities and you are limited to buses or mini-vans for public transport options. Nevertheless, for BP, think it would be smarter for the government to devote complete focus to building the Bangkok-Rayong route first.

BP: Apologies for lack of links above, but they are notes from months ago and never got around to writing post as got to bogged down in details. With China being in on it, it makes building from North to South relevant but less for the Chiang Mai link for now. However, still think the Bangkok to Rayong makes much economic sense and is not dependent on China.