The beleaguered construction and murky progress of the proposed Bangkok-Nong Khai high-speed railway are emblematic of deeper problems underlying Thailand’s and China’s infrastructural ambitions.
The Bangkok-Nong Khai High-Speed Train (HST) project bilateral agreement between Thailand and China to connect Bangkok to Kunming via Laos was reached in 2016. Under this agreement, Thailand agreed to cover all project expenditures, while China was to advise on the technology and the railway system. The project is divided into two phases: the Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima stretch (Phase One) and the Nakhon Ratchasima-Nong Khai completion (Phase Two; see Table 1 and Figure 1 for details).
Despite several reports of construction delays and obstacles, the Thai government has stuck to the line that the full route of the HST will be operational in 2028, as announced on 6 July 2022. This raises questions about whether this declaration was a political ploy rather than an achievable aim. The lobbying for the project’s timely completion is external and internal: mainly Chinese pressure for the former and the current Thai adminstration’s strategy to acquire voter support for the upcoming election (expected by May 2023).
The Thai announcement came out one day after Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha met then Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Officially, Wang Yi had visited Thailand to commemorate the first decade of their countries’ comprehensive strategic collaborative partnership. Critical topics discussed included the expansion of potential economic cooperation and the future integration of the railroad project with other projects. The planned Bangkok-Nong Khai train will be a component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) Indo-China corridor, as part of a regional logistics route. Pandemic delays to the construction effort notwithstanding, Wang Yi’s visit was clearly intended to signal to the Thais to speed up the planned link between Bangkok and Kunming.
After Wang’s visit, further progress was made, including the issuance of a land expropriation decree on 26 August 2022 and a proposal for the new Nong Khai-Vientiane bridge project following a meeting between Thailand’s Ministry of Transportation and Laos’ Ministry of Public Works and Transport on 6 October 2022. The bridge project was proposed to support seamless transborder logistics at the Nong Khai-Vientiane border. There is an evident increase in trading volume in that region: imports from Laos and other countries via the Nong Khai customs checkpoint into Thailand reportedly rose by 144 per cent and exports through customs (to Laos and third countries) by 10.9 per cent between August 2021 to August 2022.
Despite several reports of construction delays and obstacles, the Thai government has stuck to the line that the full route of the HST will be operational in 2028.
The project’s history is convoluted. The Prayut government is credited for kickstarting the HST plan after several successive governments failed to gain traction, after it was first introduced in 2010 by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who envisaged a 51-49 split for Thailand to engage in a joint rail venture with China. The 2010 proposal was abandoned following the dissolution of the parliament in 2011 and revived upon Yingluck Shinawatra’s election to office in August 2011, with an MOU signed in 2012. However, that scheme was rejected when the proposed loan bill for mega-infrastructural projects (under which the railway was subsumed) was ruled as unconstitutional in 2014.
Nevertheless, Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) updated the project scope and signed the Thailand-China MOU in 2014. The MOU states that this project will be financed by Chinese loans without a clear investment ratio, but due to the high-interest Chinese loan terms, the project eventually stalled. In 2016, under Prayut’s leadership, Thailand renegotiated the investment terms and became the sole investor. Construction finally began in 2017.
However, the project is just 5 per cent completed: apparently only 3.5 km of the first phase’s proposed 253 km of tracks have been built. This delay has harmed the government’s reputation. While various extraneous factors caused this delay, other controversial factors like the difficulty in employing Chinese engineers and architects to work on the train system, concerns about adverse impacts of construction on the ancient capital site of Ayutthaya, and the project’s potential effect on some communities in Nakhon Ratchasima were arguably within Thailand’s control.
In the HST game, the Bhumjaithai party, the government’s coalition party, and Saksayam Chidchob, Minister of Transportation and party general secretary, have been critical in promoting the project’s advancement. The party has a sizeable electoral base in the Northeast, where the HST is being built; the party’s strategic role in promoting the Bangkok-Nong Khai HST may partly be an election ploy to gain local support. Furthermore, Saksayam and Anutin Charnvirakul, Bhumjaithai’s party head, organised a trip to Laos on 6 October 2022 to discuss the possibility of a new Thai-Laos bridge project.
The HST project’s multiple problems, delays, and revisions belie the Thai politicians’ empty posturing on their vision to have the Bangkok-Nong Khai HST completed by 2028. In this author’s view, their declaration is more of a political gambit than an actual work plan.
Table 1. Phases of Bangkok-Nong Khai High-Speed Train Project
|Project Phase||First phase||Second phase|
|Route||Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima||Nakhon Ratchasima-Nong Khai|
|Train track length||253 km||356 km|
|Construction budget||179.41 billion baht (US$5.43 billion)||254.3 billion baht (US$6.69 billion)|
|Source of budget||Thailand (approved project)||Thailand (plan to propose in 2023)|
Figure 1. Map of Bangkok-Nong Khai High Speed Train Project
Sivarin Lertpusit is Assistant Professor at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Thammasat University.