Thailand revises high-speed rail plan, Laos link shelved
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's new government unveiled a revised plan for the country's high-speed train network on Tuesday, prioritising domestic rail expansion over an ambitious regional connectivity plan being spearheaded by China.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced during her inaugural policy speech to parliament that three routes would be constructed linking Bangkok with urban centres in the north, northeast and upper south.
The plan differs from that of the previous Democrat Party-led government, which wanted one high-speed line connecting Bangkok with Nong Khai province bordering Laos, some 615 km (382 miles) away, followed by a second line stretching 980 km south of the capital to Padang Basar at the Malaysian border.
Supoj Sablorm, permanent secretary of Thailand's Transport Ministry, said the original plan had been modified to cover more of the country and the proposed links to Laos and Malaysia would be revisited at a later stage.
He said the first line would be to Nakhon Ratchasima, 260 km northeast of Bangkok, and the Puea Thai Party-led government was in no rush to extend it to Nong Khai because China's construction of a high-speed railway through Laos had been delayed beyond 2014.
"Actually, it is the same route, but in order to finish it earlier, Puea Thai have shortened it," Supoj told Reuters. "China is also not yet ready in Laos."
China is keen to increase its footprint in Southeast Asia and last year agreed a free-trade pact with the Association of South East Asian Nations, a 10-member bloc of 1.9 billion people with a combined GDP of almost $6 trillion.
But at home, last month's high-speed rail crash in eastern China that killed 40 people has triggered public fury, concerns about safety issues and a freeze on approvals for new railway projects.
The previous Thai government had agreed in principal to borrow $400 million from China, which would be spent on materials to construct the high-speed railways, with Chinese engineers providing expertise.
But it was not clear whether the new government would stick to that agreement. Supoj said a Memorandum of Understanding needed to be signed between the two countries.
The rail plan announced by Yingluck features three separate lines each from Bangkok, out to Nakhon Ratchasima, Chiang Mai (700 km north) and the beach town of Hua Hin (200 km south).
She gave no timeframe for completion of the three routes.
She said a new conventional rail link between Suvarnabhumi airport and central Bangkok could be expanded eastwards to reach Chonburi, a largely industrial province close to the racy coastal city of Pattaya, which draws more than 4 million tourists a year.
China is offering financing and expertise to push its ambitious Sino-Southeast-Asian network, which aims to connect Kunming in southern China with Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore, and possibly Cambodia and southern Vietnam.
(Editing by Martin Petty and Yoko Nishikawa)