'Stonehenge' of our city begone, and stay gone

I learned from the radio yesterday that Bangkok's "Stonehenge" will be demolished soon to pave the way for the construction of the Airport Rail Link extension from Phaya Thai to Don Mueang and for the Red Line commuter rail system.

According to the news report, some 500 concrete pillars, which are part of the unfinished Hopewell mass transit project, will be demolished, especially the above-ground section, as they are not safe. Some beams near Wat Samian Nari collapsed last year.

If the demolition really happens, I will be very happy to see these ugly structures gone at long last.

Hopewell's concrete pillars lining Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road (outbound) have been abandoned for more than 15 years as a testimony to the corruption in Thai politics and poor financial and project management.

I think many of you also share the same feeling as me that Bangkok's "Stonehenge" is a monument of disgrace for Thailand.

I felt embarrassed when my close friend from England asked me to show her the Thai version of "Stonehenge" during her visit a few years ago.

And every time I see it, I always wonder why the government at that time awarded this elevated road and train project so readily to Hong Kong businessman Gordon Wu.

I still remember that some 20 years ago, one senior reporter who had just interviewed Mr Wu said the Hong Kong tycoon had told a news meeting that he came to convince the Thai government to award the deal with only a two-page proposal to build the megaproject.

Mr Wu certainly came with brimming confidence about winning this multi-billion-baht project even when his proposal lacked a feasibility study or substantial details. Yet he won the contract.

Approved in 1990, the 80-billion-baht project was a joint scheme of the Transport Ministry, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) and the Thai subsidiary of Hopewell Holdings of Hong Kong. It did not have a clear timeline for completion. The little that was revealed publicly was that the project would have three phases: the first a north-south line from Hua Lamphong, Bangkok's main train station, to Don Mueang airport; the second an east-west line from Taling Chan to Hua Mak; and the third an extension to the port. Stretching 60km, the elevated trains would be built on top of existing SRT train lines.

But Mr Wu also had his complaints. For him, the Thai government was to blame for the slow land acquisition resulting from political instability and frequent coups. And according to the Thai authorities, Hopewell simply had no money.

As the Hopewell project dragged on, many Thais eventually called it Hopeless. It took the company seven years to get only 13.77% of the work done. And the sluggish construction activity finally ground to a complete halt in 1997. The Chuan Leekpai government officially cancelled the project concession with Hopewell (Thailand) a year later.

After Mr Wu's project went bust, we have had to wait more than 15 years to find a good solution to do away with his 500 concrete pillars. Think about the amount of money and time we put into the project but got nothing. A huge waste for the overall economy and society.

Apart from being visual pollution, the mammoth concrete pillars also block the traffic flow along a local road that parallels Vibhavadi Rangsit Road in the northern part of Bangkok. Motorists have to drive carefully along the winding local road to avoid hitting the Hopewell pillars.

The Hopewell disaster also raises a question of accountability. What happened to the politicians and high-ranking government officials who gave the green light to this project? Think about the money and time wasted. Yet they remain in place. This is the case with every megaproject that has turned disastrous. No one takes responsibility. Should we let this lack of policy accountability continue?

Bangkok's "Stonehenge" will soon be bulldozed, which will cost millions of baht of taxpayers' money again, not to mention the headaches from removing the tonnes of concrete caused by the demolition.

Like many Thai people, I don't want to see any mega-infrastructure project turn out to be a second Hopewell. One monument to corruption and policy disaster is more than enough.


Krissana Parnsoonthorn is Deputy Business Editor, Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Krissana Parnsoonthorn
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