Thailand has ambitious plans to become a rail hub in mainland Southeast Asia. But successful implementation of the plan is a different thing altogether.
The replacement of the historical Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok by the Bang Sue Grand Station is more than a major urban project. The move is emblematic of Thailand’s ambition to become a regional rail hub. According to Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, Thailand intends to make ‘the rail system the main mode of transport in Thailand, linking the country with regional neighbours’.
Thailand’s vision is ambitious, given its chequered history with regional rail networks. Located in the centre of mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand’s potential to be a rail hub was stymied by political barriers. The Cold War denied Thailand rail connections into Laos and Cambodia, while Myanmar’s instability and isolationist policy made collaborations on rail projects difficult. This left Thailand with Malaysia for its only inter-state rail link. The State Rail of Thailand (SRT) extended its existing one-metre gauged network with Laos and Cambodia in 2009 and 2019. As a new mode of land transport with higher efficiency, the HSR project would benefit Bangkok directly, given its central location and provision of passenger and freight services.
Bang Sue Grand Station, which will become the biggest station in Southeast Asia, is designed to host four high-speed rail (HSR) lines of the standard gauge (1.435 metres). Thailand plans to have the four routes traverse the kingdom and beyond. But the goal remains elusive due to several challenges.
Thailand’s plans are probably related to China’s promotion of its HSR systems under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The 12 HSR tracks emanating from Bang Sue Station are expected to see four lines going to the regional hubs of Chiang Mai, Rayong, Hua Hin and Nong Khai.
Illustration of High Speed Rail Lines in Thailand
The line to Nong Khai will form part of the rail link to China via Laos. In the future, the lines to Rayong and Hua Hin can be extended to Cambodia and Malaysia respectively. An HSR line to Malaysia would be a milestone for the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL), and form part of a mega-project connecting China and ASEAN. The section between Kunming and Bangkok is currently under construction. Although the route to Chiang Mai could be extended to Myanmar, the political and security situation there would pose problems.
Big cities with such HSR lines tend to attract talent and investment. Theoretically, this means that Bangkok, as the largest city in the planned network, should be able to expand its role from a domestic rail hub to a regional one.
Nonetheless, Thailand’s plans have been curtailed by slow progress. The route to Nong Khai is only 50 per cent complete. It is expected to open in 2028. The other routes to Chiang Mai, Rayong, and Hua Hin are still in a planning stage. Therefore, the Thai HSR network could remain largely domestic even into the 2030s.
The standard-gauged freight trains from Thailand can enter China’s rail network directly through the HSR line, but economic integration with China’s southwest areas may not generate sufficient demand.
Various issues have also dogged the realisation of Thailand’s vision. Despite Beijing’s support, the HSR line linking Bangkok to China via Laos has been hindered by the Thai bureaucracy’s questions about design, financial and technical assistance issues. Thailand’s collaboration with Japan for the line to Chiang Mai is also encountering problems. Thailand wants Japan to be an investor in the HSR line, but the latter is only interested in the provision of loans. Similar issues will likely hamper Thailand’s negotiations with Cambodia and Myanmar for HSR connections.
The HSR project also faces the challenges of competition and compatibility. Passengers are usually the primary market for HSRs around the world. But Thailand’s HSR network might not prove to be more attractive than air transport. The 1,600km ride between Bangkok and Kunming could take more than 7 hours. This is far longer than a direct flight, which takes about 2 hours. The planned HSR also have differences in top speed: in Laos, the HSR has a top speed of 160 km/h, slower than the 250 km/h in Thailand. The southern route may face a similar challenge when it reaches Malaysia.
The standard-gauged freight trains from Thailand can enter China’s rail network directly through the HSR line, but economic integration with China’s southwest areas may not generate sufficient demand. After all, transporting goods via shipping seems more suited to China’s coastal economic centres. While there may be some types of cargoes — such as agricultural and electronics products — that are viable for rail transport, this depends on the speed and cost of rail transport compared to air and sea options. As a result, it is uncertain whether demand for rail freight transport would be realised. The same logic applies to extending freight services via China’s BRI network into Eurasia and beyond; the supposed efficiencies might be high, due to gauge compatibility issues. Thailand and China’s HSR trains use the standard gauge, which is different from the wider 1.520-metre gauges used by Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union. This means that direct freight services would not be feasible. Any connection would require transferring cargo between carriages, leading to additional costs and time.
The issue of different gauges also occurs in Thailand and other regional countries. Historically, all mainland Southeast Asian countries use the one-metre narrow gauge for their conventional railways, and the SRT is still strengthening its existing network with new signal systems and rolling stock. It would be a challenge for Thailand to optimise usage of different networks with different gauge widths. If there is less of a need for speed, the SRT’s narrow-gauge network and its established links with neighbouring countries can facilitate international freight services and make Thailand a rail hub of cargo. However, the SRT has to improve freight facilities and carry out other modernisation efforts to be efficient and competitive.
In conclusion, the new Bangkok station underscores Thailand’s aspiration to be a regional rail hub, but achieving this goal will not be easy. Given the negative economic outlook, Thailand’s HSR network could be pared down, with fewer lines and reduced accessibility to neighbouring countries. In other words, the realisation of Thailand’s vision as regional rail hub would be complicated and constitute a multi-dimensional challenge for the kingdom and its neighbours.
Wu Shang-Su is Assistant Professor and Research Coordinator at the Homeland Security Program, Rabdan Academy, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.