New transport minister taking wrong road
Just a few weeks into his new job, Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob already seems one of the hardest-working figures in cabinet, and maybe also the favourite -- at least among business operators.
His first big move was to propose hiking the speed limit for four-lane highways from 90 kilometres per hour to 120kph, which he said would ease the chronic traffic problem. He then agreed to raise taxi fares to alleviate hardships suffered by operators. To appease van operators, he slammed the brakes on a policy to replace old passenger vans with microbuses which his predecessor Arkhom Termpittayapaisith ordered in the interest of passenger safety. Mr Saksayam said vehicles that passed safety tests did not need to be replaced -- saving passengers the burden of extra costs that would have been passed on by operators. Thank you very much!
But whatever his reasoning, keeping the old vans on the road unarguably means compromising commuters' safety. In other words, people's lives are cheap.
Mr Saksayam's supporters might argue that the far larger replacement microbuses are less cost effective and lack flexibility when negotiating narrow city streets, in comparison with the nimble 10-seat vans. The bigger vans are more likely to get stuck in traffic, increasing trip times and leaving commuters waiting longer for a ride. Proponents of the old vans also claim that stricter regulation of existing speed limits would be a better way to boost passengers' safety.
One question: Has strict regulation ever really existed in our society?
According to the Thai Accident Research Centre, many of the old vans are fitted with a GPS device, but not all are connected to the Land Transport Department system, making it impossible for the agency to monitor and control speed. Even in a best-case scenario, where speeding can be tracked, the potentially lethal behaviour is a fait accompli. The department can only issue a warning retroactively, after the van in question has already reached its destination -- if it makes it at all.
The centre also confirmed the structure of the new minibuses, with an aisle down the middle, is safer than the vans' seating arrangement.
Instead of trying to please business operators with cheaper compromises, perhaps the minister should be prioritising safety standards and fair service. Improving facilities and infrastructure for public transport users nationwide would also be helpful.
I also hope the minister expands his focus beyond cities, to transport between provinces. During a recent trip to Nakhon Ratchasima and Khon Kaen by public bus, it was obvious to me the state's priority lies with city commuters and tourists who either use trains or fly.
This is not to say rail and air services are perfect, but our train stations and airports are far more convenient, orderly and cleaner to use than bus terminals crowded with passengers travelling inter-provincial routes.
While Don Mueang Airport is renovated regularly to serve customers of low-cost airlines, large bus terminals like Mor Chit are shabby, looking almost like abandoned buildings being squatted in by the hordes who can't afford a private car.
Several concessionaires have dropped first-class buses from their fleets because they can no longer compete with the private vehicles that transport passengers with deeper pockets between provinces.
Meanwhile the second-class buses in operation are ageing and often barely roadworthy.
But those who travel on inter-provincial routes have little choice but to accept what the state offers.
While the minister continues trying hard to fix the problem from the wrong end, I'm not sure if we can expect much improvement in mobility and safety.
The Ministry of Transport seems once again to be focusing on the wrong targets, misusing its state budget.
Take as another example the State Railway of Thailand's plan to demolish old stations and replace them with new structures.
The two-billion-baht project, which conservationists angrily claim will destroy important heritage, is aimed at "improving" the stations, with designs reflecting the local identity of each region.
I'm not sure if planners at the ministry and SRT are aware that the key to good travel is a safe, fast and comfortable ride -- not pretentious schemes for beautification.
With a budget as large as 2 billion baht, the SRT should be purchasing new carriages, upgrading other aspects of its trains, and making them more punctual.
Beautified stations -- and remember that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder -- will only be good for selfies, taken by passengers killing time as they wait desperately for their delayed train.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.