City train row still in need of a solution

City train row still in need of a solution

After displaying bravado for the past two months, Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob appears to have caved in to mounting public pressure against his plan to close Hua Lamphong station.

This includes his audacious development plan to auction three quarters of the land covering Hua Lamphong station and its depots on Rama IV Road to developers.

The Bhumjaithai Party MP says a commercial leasing option resulting from the auction will bring in billion baths to finance toxic debt.

Just a month ago, Mr Saksayam boldly told the SRT to terminate 122 train services to and from the station by midnight of Dec 23.

Trains would be directed to use other train stations -- the newly opened Bang Sue Grand Station and stations on the outskirts such as Don Mueang station and Taling Chan station.

Commuters resisted the scheme because they stand to pay five times more to take a bus or travel on the newly opened Red Line and subway to the inner city.

"I am not afraid and ready to brace for criticism. If I do not move the project forward, the plan will stagnate. I dare do it because the development will bring great benefits to society," he told the media on Nov 15.

Faced with resistance, the minister later said the 105-year-old Hua Lamphong Station will be kept and turned into a museum, while 90 rai will be converted into high-rise buildings for a hotel, condominium and shopping mall.

Some reports say the Transport Ministry intends asking the Interior Ministry to change the land use code on land plots to allow high-rise construction.

But the resistance might have proven stronger than even the minister was anticipating.

So on Tuesday, the SRT chief was sent to announce that all train service will continue until next month. The ministry, meanwhile, is hiring consultants to look at how to develop Hua Lamphong and the 120-rai land plot.

With respect to the minister, I believe the ministry cannot go it alone in developing Hua Lamphong Station at will.

Politicians come and go. Yet Hua Lamphong Station has been standing there for 105 years and has become a landmark in the capital. It is not just another asset that the state agency can use to write off bad debts.

At this point, I still wonder why the SRT, which already has over 30,000 rai of land and recently commercialised many land plots to a commercial developer, needs to cherry-pick this plot for a quick lease auction.

To be fair, the SRT is not an exemplary state enterprise. But its debts are partially the outcome of policy negligence by governments over the past 50 years as the country poured money into roads and buildings.

Meanwhile, governments have demanded the SRT keep fares low, so it cannot make a profit.

So, the authority might need to reconsider its debt clearance policy and the real purpose of the SRT.

Should the SRT lease all its assets to clear its debts and license operations to the private sector, to transform itself into a modern train service operator?

Make no mistake, Hua Lamphong Station needs to change to stay relevant. But change must be the outcome of a considered study, with public inclusivity, without bias or predetermined need.

The landscape of Bangkok is being transformed. Cultural and historic heritage items such as Hua Lamphong Station can be a great asset for tourism. Indeed heritage train stations in many countries are still in operation, with part of the area being commercialised.

There is more than one way to develop the place. Now, all development plans for the station are initiated by the Transport Ministry, which is adamant about opening the project to the commercial sector.

A preliminary study including details such as land leasing and financial revenue was prepared by SRT Asset, a commercial development arm that Mr Saksayam formed in April this year.

Instead of going solo, the ministry should launch an independent committee chaired by neutral experts and conservationists to help decide on the direction of Hua Lamphong Station.

The station belongs to the public, not the SRT nor the ministry. It would be disgraceful if the country's first train station that was built by King Rama V to be sacrificed to development to pay off debt.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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