SPECIAL REPORT: The SRT hopes a rail link to Chiang Rai is back on track,
A map at the State Railway of Thailand head office shows the present route network and future lines including a link to Chiang Rai.
The track to Chiang Rai, joining the main northern route at Den Chai station in Phrae, has been slated for building since 1960.
Half a century and 17 prime ministers later, no work has been conducted. The only progress is a preliminary feasibility study carried out in 1997.
Now the SRT believes there might be a chance the project will actually go ahead, as the government is showing a keen interest.
"This project ground to a halt in the past when it came to discussing the finances," said Soithip Trisuddhi , director-general of the Transport Ministry's Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning (OTP).
"But now that has changed thanks to the government's commitment to developing the railway."
A problem that has kept the Chiang Rai line on the shelves for so long is doubts about its profitability.
Even the 1997 study admits that it is not worth building due to the low return on investment. But the OTP and the Transport Ministry are now looking at the project from a wider perspective.
Projected profits in the past were calculated on domestic rides and freight transport.
The agencies today believe in its wider regional potential, as the railway to Chiang Rai will serve as a link to China, through northern Laos.
Instead of planning to lay tracks only to Chiang Rai city, the SRT and OTP want to build a route beyond Muang district to the Mekong riverside district of Chiang Khong, opposite the Lao northern province of Huaysay.
The line from Den Chai to the Thai-Lao border will be 308 kilometres long.
Another route linking the main northeastern line at Bua Yai station in Nakhon Ratchasima will travel for 368 kilometres to Nakhon Phanom, the riverside province opposite Khammouane province in central Laos.
The line to Nakhon Phanom has been on the books since 1965 but, like the route to Chiang Rai, has gone nowhere, apart from a feasibility study in 1994.
The Chiang Rai and Nakhon Phanom lines will be part of the region-wide network to link member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) with Kunming in China.
Permanent secretary for transport Supoj Saplom said 100 million baht was needed for a new feasibility study of the Chiang Rai route and another 200 million baht for a new Nakhon Phanom line study.
Calls for tenders for the contracts to conduct the studies will open next year and the work will take five years, if everything goes as planned.
Transport Minister Sohpon Zarum will seek the funds from government to set aside for the studies.
Mr Sohpon said the ministry backed plans to turn Thailand into the transport hub of Southeast Asia with China.
This is supported by the other Asean countries.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the other Asean leaders agreed at a summit in Cha-am district in Phetchaburi last October to increase infrastructure links, including the railway, between Southeast Asia and China so freight and passenger trains can travel from Singapore all the way to Kunming.
Yet a government official responsible for transport links with neighbouring countries believes the SRT and OTP are going in the wrong direction with their plan to link the Thai railway with China through Laos.
Laos has no railway lines to connect with the Thai track in Chiang Khong and Nakhon Phanom, the official said.The best option for the Southeast Asian track to link with China should be a longer route from the Thai eastern line in Aranyaprathet district in Sa Kaeo to Cambodia, Vietnam and China, he said.
Only some parts of the railway in Cambodia need repairs, including a 30 kilometre link with Aranyaprathet which was destroyed during the long years of fighting in Cambodia.
The route is looking more promising after the Asian Development Bank agreed in March to grant a US$42 million (1.36 billion baht) loan to build it, and the Australian government pledged a grant of $21.5 million to restore the Cambodian railway network.
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