Thailand hopes to have bullet trains running by 2023

19-Nov-2019 Intellasia | CNN | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Pope’s Francis’s missionary cousin, tribal minority people from remote mountain villages and Buddhist children will be among the tens of thousands of people who descend on the Thai capital to catch a glimpse of the pontiff this week.

Here are profiles on some of the interesting figures who will be in Bangkok for the pope’s four-day visit starting on Wednesday.

– Cousin ‘Jorge’ -

Sister Ana Rosa shares a great grandfather with the pope and will be at his side to act as an interpreter, attending the two masses he will lead at the Assumption Cathedral and at a stadium in Bangkok.

“I still call him ‘Jorge’,” she tells AFP, referring to the pontiff’s birth name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

The 77-year-old sister has worked as a missionary in Thailand since 1966 and today runs a Catholic girls’ school, making her the perfect guide to avoid any faux pas in the Buddhist-majority country.

She says there is no room for pride as she rises to the important role, adding she also managed to keep her feelings in check when he was appointed popeeven if she admits staying awake “most of the night”.

She remembers her now-famous cousin as a quiet child who loved football and was even “a bit boring” at times.

“Today he is a great orator when he speaks to crowds,” she says. “He likes to have direct contact with people.”

– Face-to-face with Francis -

Father Alessio Crippa has been working to give children access to education and healthcare for the past three years in Khlong Toei, central Bangkok’s largest slum and home to some 100,000 people.

But the 38-year-old former engineer-turned-missionary says he is “not a hero”.

He helped select five childrentwo Catholics and three Buddhists, aged 10 to 14to have a face-to-face meeting with Pope Francis.

“This is a sign of recognition for these young people who were recently out of the school system,” he says.

“They were born in families devastated by drugs, debt or disease.”

While the majority of Khlong Toei’s inhabitants are Buddhist, Father Alessio says he’s not here to convert, rather “to help”.

– Rice or religion? -

For many of the 400 ethnic Karen Christians travelling by bus from Tak province on the Myanmar border, this will be the first time they see Thailand’s capital.

The remote communities lack internet and television and many have only ever seen the pontiff in photos brought by missionaries, Sister Paif tells AFP.

“They don’t know what to expect,” the ethnic Karen says. “They are worried about leaving their paddy fields at harvest time, but they will be proud to recount” their adventures.

The 26-year-old sister travels by foot to visit

those in need in isolated villages, where many lack medical help and access to advanced education.

They are still considered “second-class citizens” in Thailand, she says, even after living for decades on the country’s borders having escaped persecution in Myanmar.

There are also tens of thousands of Karenalongside other ethnic groups that fled Myanmarliving in refugee camps on the border.

The pope travelled to Myanmar in 2017 before visiting Bangladesh where he met Rohingya Muslims who fled a military crackdown in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.

No such visit is planned for Myanmar’s Karen refugees in Thailand.

– Performing for the Pope -

As a Catholic, 15-year-old Nara has long had questions about her place in Buddhist-majority Thailand, but finds herself lucky that her peers are “tolerant” of her beliefs.

“I speak a lot with my Buddhist friends about my faith,” she says as she rehearses a traditional northern Thai dance using colourful umbrellas.

Nara is among 800 girlsboth Buddhist and Catholicselected to perform for the pontiff during his stadium mass which is expected to draw tens of thousands of pilgrims.

“It is an honour for me to dance at the mass,” Nara says. “He is coming here to show he is open to other religions.”

In a video message Friday, Pope Francis said he hopes for his visit to “strengthen the bonds of friendship that we share with many Buddhist brothers and sisters”.

The government plans to move some 10 percent of flights from Bangkok to a redesigned U-Tapao in order to ease congestion at Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang.

“To do that, they need a transportation link between the airports, and it could be a good opportunity for HSR,” says Jittichai Rudjanakanoknad of Chulalongkorn University’s Department of Civil Engineering.

A conglomerate led by Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group (CP), which also includes the China Railway Construction Corp., will cover an investment of 224 billion baht ($7.4 billion) in exchange for real estate concessions and a 50-year license to operate the line.

One goal is to provide easy access to the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), a zone that Thanet says constitutes 80 percent of total foreign investment in Thailand.

Supporters point out that HSR will reduce travel time between Bangkok’s two airports to just 20 minutes, and shuttle tourists to Pattaya in less than an hour. They also predict it will reduce traffic on highways, curtailing accidents in a country with one of the world’s highest road fatality rates.

As it stands, transferring between Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang entails a shuttle bus journey that can last an hour or more during Bangkok’s notoriously sluggish rush hours.

Reaching Pattaya from Suvarnabhumi requires haggling with a taxi driver, taking a cramped van or travelling across town to catch a bus from Ekkamai Terminal for the two-hour ride.

“Linking the three airports is a noble objective,” says Ruth Banomyong, director of the centre for Logistics Research at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

But he and other critics question whether HSR is the right choice, given the high cost and relatively short distances involved. Some argue that dual-track rail would suffice for the eastern provinces, which currently lack any railway at all.

The SRT said in September that 80 percent of land needed for the three-airport line has been secured for expropriation, and the Bangkok Post has reported that 3,000 houses will need to be demolished. Adding that gas and electrical lines may also be affected, Jittichai says, “it’s not easy to relocate people. Some are going to court and it takes quite a long time.”

Expected to open in 2023, Thailand’s maiden HSR line is now under construction beside existing railway tracks in Nakhon Ratchasima, a northeastern province also known as Khorat.

Unlike on the three-airport line, Chinese state firms are responsible for nearly all of the construction.

Beginning at Bang Sue, this 157-mile “Khorat line” will stop at Don Mueang Airport and the historic capital of Ayutthaya before cutting northeast to Saraburi and Pak Chong near the popular Khao Yai National Park. It will terminate at Khoratat least until the track is extended.

The government’s long-term plan is to extend the line north to Nong Khai, located 370 miles (600 km) northeast of Bangkok and home to a popular border crossing that enables travellers to reach the Lao capital of Vientiane. After crossing the Mekong River on a new bridge, passengers would be able to continue north on another HSR line now being built in Laos.

The ultimate goal is to link these lines with Kunming in southern China’s Yunnan province.

The Khorat line has drawn more criticism than the three-airport line due to the investment of 179 billion baht ($5.9 billion) worth of public funds.

Critics argue that northeast Thailand is not on the agenda for most tourists, while also expressing frustration about a lack of transparency when Thailand’s military government approved the project in 2017.

In a report first published by The Diplomat, Pechnipa Dominique Lam of the Thailand Development Research Institute estimated the line “would need to ferry 50,000-85,000 passengers every day for 20 years in order to pay back the costs of investment.” At only 5,000-25,000 riders per day, the transport ministry’s own forecasts fall well short of those numbers.

“Taking into account the benefits arising from the HSR, such as passengers’ time savings on travel,” she went on, “the economic case in favour of doing the project is still outweighed by its financial losses.”

“This line is mostly influenced by China,” adds Jittichai.

“If Thailand builds it, we might not get much benefit. But if we don’t build it, we could lose other benefits from China. That is what the government is thinking.”

“There is a strong risk that HSR might not be successful because of existing transport connectivity,” according to Ruth.

Both the SRT and the state-run bus service have long operated at financial losses as passenger numbers decline each year. The state-run airline, THAI, is also struggling as budget carriers like Air Asia and Nok Air compete with fares from Bangkok to more than 20 other Thai cities for as little as $20.

Critics also wonder if enough Thai people can afford HSR in a country with a notably wide economic divide and a minimum wage of only 300 baht ($10) per day.

Although most middle-class Thais can manage the proposed 330 baht fare for a bullet train from Bangkok to U-Tapao, and 500 baht to Khorat, many of them are attached to their private automobiles.

As for the working class, they may end up sticking to buses and vans that cost roughly a quarter of the proposed ticket prices for HSR. Regular trains are even cheaper and the coming dual tracks will shorten travel times on existing railway lines, adding another layer of competition.

While waiting for a train at Khorat’s 119-year-old railway station, Daeng Tungsunern, a Khorat native who sells second-hand goods, tells CNN, “I did not know about the HSR project until it was already being built. I will not use it because it will be too expensive for my budget.”

“Just like in Japan”

In the future, Thanet envisions Thailand as a central hub in a Southeast Asia linked by bullet trains. He also sees value in the transfer of technology, suggesting that “20 years into the future, we should be able to produce high-speed trains ourselves and not only buy them from China or Japan.”

Jittichai agrees HSR could become worthwhile “if looking at a broader network, for example, if the Thai lines can be connected to the Chinese network or Singapore, or even to central Asia and Europe.”

To that end, the government is considering additional HSR lines running north from Bangkok to Nakhon Sawan, Phitsanulok and Chiang Mai; south through Hua Hin, Surat Thani and Hat Yai; and further east from Rayong to Chanthaburi and Trat near Cambodia.

Subsequent projects might extend the proposed southern line through Malaysia to Singapore, while a northern line could link with a western extension to Myanmar and onwards to India.

The SRT is already promoting these additional projects, but the extremely high price tags are likely to prohibit them from taking shape any time soon.

“If the cost of construction and technology becomes cheaper, that is when you will see these other lines,” says Jittichai.

Back inside Khorat’s railway station, Paitoon Tikul, a retired soldier who rides trains and his bicycle around Thailand to raise money for charity, says, “I think HSR will be useful for certain people. But the cost of these projects is very expensive, and I worry about corruption. In my opinion, it would be better to use that money for improving schools, hospitals and more useful things.”

As a roughly 50-year-old train clinks into the station, railway police captain Nutthawoot Sawanphomrat interjects, saying “I think HSR will be good for the country and the economy. Just like in Japan.”


Category: Thailand

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