Explainer: Will Chadchart resolve the Green Line saga?
A new operating concession begins in 2029 and questions of debt, line extensions and control of fare pricing play into the equation
Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt is testing the waters as he vows to sort out the long-running dispute over the city's Green Line electric rail system concessions, which includes higher fares for riders and mounting debts.
Q: What are the main issues with the Green Line?
The Green Line skytrain is owned by Bangkok's local government, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Thailand's Interior Ministry has been pushing for an extension of the Green Line operator concession for Bangkok Mass Transit System Plc (BTSC), the current operator of the skytrain, for another 30 years. The contract would run from 2029 to 2059.
In exchange, BTSC would have to shoulder the cost of extending the line, estimated at around 38 billion baht. This cost comprises 20 billion baht for electrical and mechanical installations and 18 billion for operations and maintenance costs. The contract also stipulates that BTSC must cap the maximum fare at 65 baht.
A wrinkle in the negotiations is the BMA has yet to settle 55 billion baht originally owed by the State Railway of Thailand to BTSC for civil engineering costs related to the Bearing-Samut Prakan and Mo Chit-Khu Kot extensions. Interest from this sum has grown to roughly 10 billion baht.
As a result, the proposal over the Green Line concession has seen a years-long public debate involving many sides, especially the Bhumjaithai Party, the main government coalition partner that runs the Transport Ministry. This has resulted in eight failed attempts to approve the proposed concession extension.
The Thailand Consumers Council also voiced its frustration over allowing fares to rise to 65 baht, saying it would put Bangkok's mass transit system out of reach for many commuters.
Q: How does the new goverment plan to fix the issues?
Mr Chadchart opposes the concession extension because he wants the BMA to control the operation and have the ability to lower fares, capping them at 25-30 baht so that lower-income people can afford to ride.
Extending the contract would mean the BMA would have to wait for 30 more years before it could control the line, he wrote on his campaign website.
"This results in less chances for the BMA to reduce the fare, launch promotions that people need, use the profit from the concession to compensate for the extensions with fewer passengers to maintain services, and collect one-time entrance fees," said Mr Chadchart.
On his first day as the new governor, he met with a state enterprise under the BMA called Krungthep Thanakom, which is city hall's business unit and his advisory team. Mr Chadchart suggested the city collect fares from two Sukhumvit Line extensions as it could help solve the debt and concession issues surrounding the Green Line.
There is currently a free ride programme along the Mo Chit-Khu Khot and Bearing-Samut Prakan routes.
He asked for one month to review the history of the concession negotiations before deciding on an appropriate path.
A petition has been lodged with the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) against the parties involved in the signing of the contract, Mr Chadchart said. He plans to base his decision on the NACC's findings. If the NACC finds the contract to be fair, it will remain in place, he said.
Meanwhile, a source who requested anonymity said Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob instructed related agencies to coordinate with Mr Chadchart to discuss ways of tackling BTSC's concession issue and the BMA's debt.
Q: What are the reactions to the new governor's plan?
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has made it clear he wants to see Mr Chadchart settle the long-standing dispute over the extension of the Green Line concession.
"The longer this issue is left to drag on, the longer commuters will continue to suffer," said Gen Prayut.
"We want to see this matter resolved successfully with help from all sides."
Sumet Ongkittikul, director for transport and logistics policy at Thailand Development Research Institute, told the Bangkok Post there is still room to reconsider policies and alternatives for Green Line operations.
"The change of governor may lead to better action," he said.
"Mass transit fares in Bangkok should follow a single fare table, consisting of all lines operating in Bangkok. To achieve this, the central government and BMA must work together."
Mr Sumet said while BMA owns the Green Line, it is not going to operate it.
"The terms and renewal of the concession is the key question, or whether a new operator is preferred starting in 2029. The debt is a major factor in whether the concession should be renegotiated," he said.
Q: What is considered a fair fare for riders?
Saree Ongsomwang, secretary-general of the Foundation for Consumers, said she supports the new governor's opposition to the Green Line concession extension because Thailand's rapid transit systems are more expensive than similar systems in developed countries.
"London's metro fare is about 5% of the minimum wage, while Paris is 3%, Hong Kong is 5% and Tokyo is 9%. A fair fare should not exceed 10% of the daily minimum wage or it would be too costly for many low-income people," she said.
The average minimum wage of Bangkok residents now stands at 331 baht per day. There are appeals from many sides to increase it to 492 baht because of rising living costs.
Ms Saree cited the BTS's previous cancellation of monthly pass tickets, which meant many people could not afford to ride the train any longer. The average rider pays 22 to 26 baht per ride, she said.
"The Foundation for Consumers has proposed multiple times that a 25-baht fare for the entire line is sufficient and realistic. We found a 25-baht maximum fare would still yield a profit of 23.2 billion baht. Frankly, I think that's enough," said Ms Saree.
"Another large chunk of revenue comes from advertisements. This is an area that should be included in cost and profit considerations."
- Green Line