The cabinet will be asked to approve the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway project, linking Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima, next month, kickstarting construction as soon as August -- more than a year behind schedule.
Once the cabinet approves it, in July the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) will hire China to design the 252.5km rail track and subsequently call bidding for the 179-billion-baht project, Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said Wednesday after the 18th meeting of a Thai-Sino panel in Bangkok.
The meeting, joined by Wang Xiaotao, vice-chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, concluded "almost all of details" of the joint development, the minister said.
The project, which has been dubbed the "train to nowhere", has been delayed repeatedly because of disagreements between the two sides. First, Thailand was unhappy with loan interest rates proposed by China and subsequently decided to look into other possible financing sources. China, meanwhile, has been unhappy with Thailand's refusal to allow it to manage property along the rail route.
The two sides last year agreed on a face-saving plan to start construction of a token 3.5-kilometre section in December last year, just so they could say that work had begun. Construction originally had been scheduled to start in May 2016. But that plan never went beyond a fancy photo opportunity.
The Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima route is part of a scheme which will, upon its completion, be extended with a 354km rail line from Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai, which borders Laos.
Looking closer at the Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima project, the SRT has agreed to divide it into four sections.
Mr Arkhom said it has finished drafting the terms of reference of the symbolic 3.5km section linking Klang Dong and Pang Asok in Nakhon Ratchasima's Pak Chong district. The SRT expects to call bidding for this section between July and August, he said.
Another three sections are an 11km route from Pak Chong to Sikhiu district; a 119km section between Nakhon Ratchasima and Saraburi's Kaeng Khoi district; and the 119km from Kaeng Khoi to Bangkok.
Chinese engineers and architects are required to sit an exam to obtain local professional licences before they can start work here, which is causing the Chinese concern.
The Council of Engineers and the Architects Council of Thailand will help the SRT deal with the issue, Mr Arkhom said.
His ministry is also preparing to talk to the Budget Bureau and the Finance Ministry about financial issues concerning the project.
It is possible the SRT will ask the government to finance the project or seek loans from domestic financial institutions.
Mr Arkhom said Thailand would only borrow money from its Chinese counterpart for the purchase of trains and the signalling system under the project.
In another development, more middle-sized contractors have joined 38 firms to buy tender document packages for a double-track rail route connecting Hua Hin and Prachuap Khiri Khan, said acting SRT governor Anon Luangboriboon.
Their participation is sought by the government for the sake of fairer competition in bidding after the original terms of reference for five dual-track railway projects, including the 7.3-billion-baht Hua Hin-Prachuap Khiri Khan section, were criticised for barring small- and medium-sized tenders.
The original terms, with five contracts for five rail routes, was later scrapped by the "superboard" for state procurements, and replaced with a new one which divides the projects into 13 contracts with lower construction value.
This has made the bidding more accessible for smaller construction companies.
The number of participating companies has increased from 31 in a previous bidding process to 38, Mr Anon said after the SRT closed sales on its bidding envelopes on Monday.
The agency earlier set Feb 20 for announcing a list of qualified bidders for the five projects, but that was delayed, following a complaint that the original terms of reference were drafted to favour construction giants.