It has been two decades since the Asian Development Bank (ADB) delineated one of the most ambitious road links in modern Asian history: the East West Economic Corridor (EWEC).
The 670-metre Dragon River Bridge is taking shape in the background in Danang in mid- 2012. The American-designed dragon-shaped bridge is built over the Han River in the port city to the East of the EWEC in Vietnam. SOONYA VANICHKORN
Connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea via Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, the EWEC facilitates smoother flows of goods, people and services among Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries.
While large parts of the Myanmar section remain impassable, much of the hard infrastructure in other countries is already in place. But questions remain about the extent the corridor is being used and how beneficial it is for Thai operators.
Thai transport operators said the EWEC is not the preferred route of choice and remains underutilised due to high operating costs, poor road conditions and risk of accidents en route. Few Thai containers and passenger coaches travel to the route's eastern terminus in Danang, Vietnam.
Sompol Hiranyasut, the secretary-general of Thailand's Northeastern Transport Association, said a lack of supporting factors limits the usage of the EWEC, despite its potential to cut transport costs and time.
Under the GMS's Customs Transit and Temporary Admission System aimed at reducing border crossing formalities, each country is given a permit quota of about 500 vehicles _ 400 for commercial trucks and 100 for commercial buses. The permit enables them to cross into one or more countries without requiring transshipment or undergoing full customs clearances.
But only 60 Thai commercial vehicles _ 40 trucks and 20 passenger coaches _ actually use the permits.
"Extremely few single shipments from Thailand to Vietnam take place. Thai trucks still prefer to transship at the Lao-Vietnamese border even though the costs are higher," said Mr Sompol.
Vietnamese trucks charge between 37,000 and 42,000 baht per trip from Lao Bao (on the Lao-Vietnamese border) to Danang. Comparatively, it would cost a Thai container only 15,000 baht if it were to travel the same route.
"If we could run straight in, then costs would definitely be lower. But the issue is Thai operators are not really willing to take the risk of going into Vietnam," said Mr Sompol, adding that safety is a concern when driving on narrow roads in Laos and Vietnam because motorists there drive on the right-hand side, unlike in Thailand. Also, motorcycles are rampant in these two countries, making navigation for big trucks on crowded roads more difficult.
Proposals have been made to the Transport Department to ask the Vietnamese government to establish special lanes only for international cargo trucks.
Another obstacle is operators are required to deposit a guarantee of 1 million baht with the Board of Trade, which acts as the guarantee agent.
Mr Sompol said compared with Vietnam, sections of the EWEC in Laos are in poor condition. Under-the-table deals are common practice in Laos to allow overweight trucks to operate.
Low demand from Laos and Vietnam is another reason few Thai companies operate on the route, he said.
Wasuchet Sophonsathin, president of the Thai Transportation Operators Association, which represents passenger coaches, said despite physical barriers, the lack of language skills needed by drivers for international travel remains a key problem.
"Many operators that won these GMS quotas found themselves unprepared to operate on the route, as they did not have good enough drivers. As a result, companies simply left their quotas underutilised," he said.
Mr Wasuchet said better movement of people through single-stop inspection in common control areas is needed, as it takes a few hours at border checkpoints for companies unless they make "informal payments".
While Laos is ready to move forward with such a system, Thai law forbids Thai and foreign officials to perform duties simultaneously in a common territory. An amended law is awaiting parliamentary approval.
Narong Pomlaktong, research director for transport and logistics at the Thailand Development Research Institute, pointed out the software put in place by the ADB to facilitate transport on the EWEC has met with little success, given the reality of bribery and the absence of an international authority to oversee the process.
"Countries can go on ratifying these documents, but in reality no one uses these formal systems," he said.
Mr Narong said the idea of trucks running on single journeys all the way through is not realistic.
"If a single truck is to run all the way from Thailand through Laos to Vietnam, the headway would be very long. Operators must have enough trucks to cater to customers without having to wait for containers to come back," he said.
Most local land transport operators are small and medium-sized enterprises.
"What will happen to areas in the middle such as Laos if transport companies just whizz through and deteriorate their roads?" asked Mr Narong, adding that there is a fair bit of competitive distrust between operators in the region.
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- Writer: Soonya Vanichkorn