According to the China Railway Corporation, a 3,000km, high-speed rail line will be built that will connect the country to Southeast Asia.
The line will be constructed in four stages.
First, from the city of Kunming in China to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Then the route will continue to Bangkok, where it will split, heading to both Thailand’s southern and northern provinces. The Bangkok line will carry on to Kuala Lumpur, ending in Singapore.
Even though Thailand’s railway system needs an upgrade, many are asking who will really benefit from this project
Al Jazeera spoke to Dr. Ruth Banomyong, Professor of Logistics and Transport at Thammasat University, and an adviser to Thailand’s transport department on this train project.
Al Jazeera: Explain why trains and tracks in China are currently not compatible with those of Southeast Asia.
Dr. Ruth Banomyong: There is no standard width for railways around the world. For China, it’s 1.44 metres, it’s wider, so theoretically they can have higher speed trains and can carry more freight. In Southeast Asia, in Thailand in particular, we have the one metre gauge. It’s an old relic from colonial times and it’s a system that’s promoted by ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
AJ: So how would that work with this new rail system that China wants to implement?
Dr. Banomyong: So what it means is that you’ll have a country like Thailand having two rail systems, a one metre gauge which is very important to connect to the neighbouring countries and you’ll have a specific system just to connect to China.
AJ: Why is China so eager to build this new rail line?
Dr. Banomyong: It’s quite understandable how China looks at the world. I’ve seen a map in Kunming, where China is in the middle and Southeast Asia is the hinterland. And from a Chinese perspective, getting access into Laos is very important because they have a number of mining concessions. That will allow them to transport the mining equipment. But linking with Thailand gives them another opportunity for access to the sea. And then going into other markets.
AJ: But Thailand’s current train network hasn’t had any investment in years, and needs a complete overhaul, so why not let the Chinese build Thailand a new railway?
Dr. Banomyong: Any train system would be welcome. But we need to be careful, we shouldn’t be taking the first gift that someone gives to us. You need to think in terms of connectivity. You need to think in terms of the management. It has to be thought through. If you don’t do that you will just end up with a line that will just link with Laos and China and that’s it. Is that what we really want?
AJ: Who’s going to be paying for all of this?
Dr. Banomyong: China is going to pay for it. Thailand doesn’t really need to take money from China. We can raise the funds ourselves. But this is something that has happened because of the situation in the country, when we had a change of power in May last year.
AJ: Is Thailand getting a free upgrade?
Dr. Banomyong: There is nothing free with what the Chinese give in terms of aid to other countries. There is no master plan. There still are a lot more things that need to be thought about before jumping into bed like this.
AJ: What do you make of the route in Thailand?
Dr. Banomyong: It’s logical from a Chinese perspective, but from a Thai perspective it doesn’t add much.