What new initiatives is SRT currently involved in?
CHONGSANGUAN: We are supposed to be involved in the high speed train, double tracking all of the tracks, and new lines from Den Chai to Chiang Rai and also from Ban Pai to Nakhon Phanom. We are also working on overpasses and underpasses so that road traffic can go across the railway tracks. That makes up most of the THB2tn.
What are timelines for the THB2tn investment into infrastructure?
CHONGSANGUAN: Right now it’s in Parliament, and we have to get that through Parliament first. I heard that the opposition might take it through the constitutional courts claiming that it is unconstitutional. So we have to wait for that. If we can overcome that, then we will move on to the next thing. Right now we have 5 projects under review of the environmental board. If the environmental board approves the 5 projects that means that the 5 projects, the double tracking projects, will be good to go. We are sending everything to cabinet through the various agencies like the NESTB, Minister of Finance, budget people, etc., and everyone has to give their opinion. Once the cabinet OK's this, the Minister of Finance gets us the money and we proceed with the construction.
Of the THB2tn fund being raised, how much is earmarked for railway projects specifically?
CHONGSANGUAN: Specifically for the railways, including the high-speed train, double track for the SRT, and mass-transit for the MRTA, about 80% of the THB2tn is set for rail infrastructure.
Which developments do you think will have the biggest economic impact on Thailand?
CHONGSANGUAn: I think double tracks will have the biggest economic impact because we want to change the way people transport goods, especially industry, from using roads to using railways. By doing the double track we can double the size of our capacity and we can also persuade people to come back to the railway. By having double tracks we can be more punctual and safer. So the main aim is for that.
For high-speed, the aim is for the overall growth of the country. We have seen Thailand developing mainly through Bangkok. Bangkok keeps growing and growing, but in other provinces and cities it’s not the same. I think less than 10 cities in Thailand are really developed. With high-speed, we can change that. We can change the way that people live. If people can afford to have a house or condo in Khao Yai, which is a very nice place, or Hua Hin, and if they can travel from Bangkok to Khao Yai or Hua Hin within an hour, I am pretty sure these people would prefer to go to their homes by train rather than be stuck in traffic for 3 or 4 hours.
How will high-speed rail impact domestic travel?
CHONGSANGUAN: I think it is something that the airlines will have to start thinking about in terms of their strategy once we have this high-speed train. They may need to think more about how they can compete with the train. The buses are another thing that we are going to have to change totally. The buses today need to change drastically. Otherwise, there is no way they can compete with the trains. Time wise or safety wise, trains beat the bus anytime.
How is the SRT planning to improve its financial performance?
CHONGSANGUAN: When you talk about the SRT, you have to really think about what the SRT is for. The concept of having the SRT back when Rama V started it was to help people commute from the different provinces quickly to Bangkok. SRT has been serving people with low income and we have not changed our fare for 20 years now. We are running about 220 trains per day, and out of that 220 something like 160 are free to ride. So that is a big burden, but that is OK. Money wise, we may not be making a lot of money, but the country has gained a lot as a whole because of the trains. If there was no train here today it would be chaos because there are a lot of people who cannot afford to travel even by bus, so how are they going to commute?
Specifically for the railways, including the high-speed train, double track for the SRT, and mass-transit for the MRTA, about 80% of the THB2tn is set for rail infrastructure.
We were the first country in this region to have trains and then something happened. When we changed our political system from an absolute monarchy to this so-called democratic system, we now have government think-tanks like the NESDB. They decided we are not going to focus on trains, we are going to go with roads and cars. Trains were put aside and no money was put into SRT. So I think it’s good that this government realizes that the train is something that is good for the country and finally they have decided to put real money into the railroad. So I think that this is good.
For the land banks, there has been a lot of misconceptions and we have been given a lot of bad press and a lot of politicians are giving false information to the public. SRT has some 2,000 rai of land. 80% of that is used for railways and the other 20% is occupied by other people from local strong men to people with low income. They ask the government for a place to stay and the government says, “OK, the SRT has a lot of land, so go ahead and move there and stay there.” So the SRT’s land has not really been utilized. Most of the contracts we have today are 30 year contracts and it hasn’t really been developed the way it was supposed to be.
Apart from Bangkok, we have 10 other cities with land where we can do something. The rest are not really developed so we cannot really do anything with them. What everyone is saying about all of our land is not really true because it is not really worth that much. We have been talking to the Ministry of Finance to let them lease 2 pieces of our land. One of them is right on the river and it used to be an old station and the other one is Makkasan, which is about 400 rai of land.
We are thinking about trying to negotiate with the Ministry of Finance to allow them to lease some of our land in exchange for wiping off our debt with them so that we can move forward from zero without all of the burden and weight of debt on our shoulders.
What are your station development plans?
CHONGSANGUAN: We are looking at constructing new stations. Once we have had the work progress a little bit more we are going to start to talk to more people. Very recently in fact, the Central Group came over and they talked to us about the potential for them to build something, or to rent, or to concession out the commercial space at Bang Su station. I think this is a good sign. If we can rent it out to Central Group, it means that all the commercial space will be occupied and we will have set income.
What measures are being put in place to link up with other countries’ rail networks?
CHONGSANGUAN: The Chinese have said that they want to negotiate with Laos to connect a high-speed train with Thailand at Nong Khai and go all the way down to Malaysia and Singapore. So I think the connectivity using railways is something that will happen. There have been talks for a long time about connecting rail networks all the way through China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, and eventually reaching all the way to India. So this is something that we are all thinking about and are all planning for in the future. This will be good for all the countries around here. It will not only be good for goods, but it will also be good for people. This will very much compliment the goals of ASEAN.
Where do you see opportunity for foreign investors to get involved in Thailand’s railway development projects?
CHONGSANGUAN: I think real estate will be the best. Once the high speed train is up in running we will need a lot of new investment, we will need new cities, and we will need new industries. The food industry is also very important and by having the trains and all of this connectivity, I think that there is potential for other upstream industries such as food processing to make sure that we have enough food to feed the ASEAN region. I think we can double our output by using technology. Thailand has been talking about industrial farming for a long time. Looking at the bigger picture we can move beyond feeding the people of Thailand and look at feeding a lot more people.