Playing with fire is safer than playing with train fares. That's why the issue of train fares is largely left untouched by transport ministers and railway chiefs.
The last time the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) hiked fares for third-class passengers was more than 10 years ago when diesel prices of around 30 baht per litre were unthinkable.
Fares for the third class are superficially low today. A ticket from Hua Lumphong to Bang Sue still costs 2 baht, and 5 baht to Don Muang. The fare from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a 750 kilometre trip, still stands at 121 baht, excluding top-up charges.
It does not make sense to freeze third-class fares.
The SRT and the Transport Ministry, the railway agency's supervisor, has raised first- and second-class fares at least twice over the same time span _ the latest hike was two years ago. Officials have kept fares low for third class passengers to keep money in the pockets of low-income riders.
Transport Minister Chadchat Sittipunt does not favour fare hikes across the board, saying last month that it was not fair to ask for more money from passengers while the train service remained the same. In fact, the ruling Pheu Thai Party is worried a fare hike to any class of passengers will become a political boomerang.
The SRT, set up by King Chulalongkorn, prides itself as one of the oldest state agencies in this country. But the railway is deep in the red, sitting on a huge pile of debt of more than 70 billion baht. And so far no governors _ whether they're ''insiders'' or ''outsiders'' _ have been able to reduce that debt.
The agency must take action to raise revenues and increase the efficiency of its workforce as current governor Prapat Chongsanguan has vowed to do.
Making matters worse is the populist policy which requires the SRT to generously offer free third-class rides on some routes. Obviously, not all passengers benefitting from this scheme on these routes are low-income earners. The ministry and SRT have defended the free ride policy and shrugged off its costs.
The SRT has found another way to raise money from passengers.
It tacks on other costs such as surcharges for express and rapid trains, air-conditioning and berth fees. A ticket to Chiang Mai from Bangkok on the first-class train can quickly turn out to be at least 1,250 baht although the fare is only 593 baht. Second-class fares on the same route cost 281 baht but jump to around 800 baht when all the charges are tallied.
But boosting revenue through surcharges has its own limits. Low-cost airlines sometimes offer fares similar to first-class trains but offer passengers a much quicker trip.
A trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai can take up to 14 hours on a train. That same trip takes only one hour in the air. Only train loyalists would shrug off these hot deals from no-frills airlines.
The SRT cannot wait for its service to improve before making another fare hike. It should be improving service while charging more for it to avoid plunging deeper into debt. To do this, the governor needs political backing.
At least Thailand is not alone on this hot issue. India is in the same boat and could be worse off.
On March 13, India's railway minister Dinesh Trivedi announced a fare increase for the first time in eight years to shore up money for the train system.
Investors supported him but the coalition political parties didn't for fears the policy could cost them votes and popularity.
Less than a week later, he received an invitation from his own Trinamool Congress Party to step down.
Mr Chadchat and Mr Prapat are in a much better situation.
But they are not sitting in the lap of luxury if they seriously want to pull Thai trains out of the red.
Saritdet Marukatat is Digital Media News Editor, Bangkok Post
About the author
- Writer: Saritdet Marukatat
Position: Opinion-Editorial Pages Editor