SRT set for a 'bright future' after hitting speed

SRT set for a 'bright future' after hitting speed

Governor hopes new projects and makeover will attract tourists and revitalise the organisation

Acting State Railway of Thailand governor Voravuth Mala poses near a decommissioned locomotive at the SRT office. He is leading the authority's preparations for a new chapter to revitalise its operations. (Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)
Acting State Railway of Thailand governor Voravuth Mala poses near a decommissioned locomotive at the SRT office. He is leading the authority's preparations for a new chapter to revitalise its operations. (Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)

The State Railway of Thailand (SRT), the country's main railway authority, may still be operating half-century-old trains countrywide, but acting governor Voravuth Mala believes the debt-ridden organisation is headed for "a bright future".

Although he has witnessed the authority's shortcomings first-hand over three decades, he told the Bangkok Post that the government has never looked as ready as it is now to revitalise the broken-down railway operator. Revival plans, debt servicing and roll out of new railway projects have been put in place.

In May, Mr Voravuth replaced Transport Ministry inspector Anon Luangboriboon as the SRT's interim chief. The appointment order, signed by Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, stated that Mr Anon's dual role as inspector and governor was preventing him from running the SRT efficiently.

InquiryLines, published bi-weekly on Mondays is a Bangkok Post column to present in-depth details of a range of issues from politics and social interest to eye-catching everyday lives.

Mr Voravuth, currently in his 32nd year with the SRT, is also the deputy governor, asset management. He will serve as acting governor until further orders.

"The SRT as an organisation has always been somewhat abandoned by the government," he said. "But when you look at how things are now, such as the government pressuring us for the establishment of new countrywide double-track railways by 2023, it's clear that we will survive."

According to him, the SRT was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and put under severe constraints by the government to reduce its expenses.

The economic collapse left Thailand with a colossal debt that led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to eventually bail the country out. A cabinet order from July 1998 -- still exercised to this day -- partially states the country must seek to decrease the overall expenses of the state railway operator. It indicated the SRT can hire only five new employees per 100 retirees.

This has led to what the SRT claims is a mass shortage of staff. Officials and worker unions have pleaded repeatedly with the government to lift the order.

"The first years of the new hiring policy were fine, but 20 years since the limitations were enforced upon us, the effects are clear to see," he said. "Most of the debt we have has been the result of overtime payments for employees and maintaining worn-out diesel trains.

"The government has shown promise, however. This week, we will be meeting with the Transport Ministry to discuss how the order can be lifted," he added.

Reports say the SRT has incurred debts of more than 100 billion baht. It reportedly lost 17 billion baht in 2017 alone, and has suffered losses every year since it was turned into a state enterprise under the Ministry in 1951.

Mr Voravuth, however, said old trains and hiring constraints are not the only problem the SRT needs to deal with to "revitalise its image".

"It's needless to say passengers' commuting patterns have drastically changed over the years, with fares of some low-cost airlines costing less than some of our first or second-class tickets," he said.

"The SRT must start a new repositioning campaign. Our primary passenger group comprises senior citizens and tourists who are not under time constraints and want to enjoy scenic views as they travel."

The acting chief said the key aspect now is how the SRT will make travelling by train more convenient with more access points and developing land around the stations.

To date the SRT does not have an accurate picture of how much land it actually owns across the country, Mr Voravuth said, citing the authority using a blend of unaccounted informal deeds and formal ones.

"The potential is surely there, since land around railways is coveted by both Thai and foreign firms," he said. "But we are still using the same-old, wet market, townhouse-style equivalent of land-leasing."

He said the SRT has around 10,000 documented land-leasing contracts, such as the land around the Chatuchak and Makkasan areas. A subsidiary is set to be established to oversee the authority's land, after the SRT board had agreed on the matter in a May meeting.

In addition to new double-track railways and planned image rebranding, the SRT has now been enlisted with a task which it has been unsuccessful in thus far: operating electric train networks without incurring losses.

The Thai-Sino high-speed railway from Bangkok to Nong Khai has officially been under construction since last December, although the actual tracks have not been laid yet. Embankments are being dug by the Department of Highways, but authorities from both countries are still ironing out a collateral policy in case the megaproject fails. The first stretch of the project, from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, has been valued at 179 billion baht.

Another fast-tracked railway project, backed by the government's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) development plan, is a high-speed rail set to link Don Mueang, Suvarnabhumi and U-Tapao airports together. The SRT will remain the government organisation involved in the estimated 200-billion-baht railway. As of Friday, 23 firms have bid for the project. Today is the last day for bidding.

However, the SRT's failure to efficiently operate the Airport Rail Link (ARL) from Phaya Thai to Suvarnabhumi Airport in Samut Prakan has come under heavy criticism from pundits and the public questioning why the government continues to allow the authority to oversee electric train projects.

Furthermore, the SRT is also set to operate the Red electric commuter rail line network in Bangkok and its metropolitan area, with its first Bang Sue-Rangsit (in Pathum Thani) section set to be open in October 2020.

"The Red Line is our last chance to rebrand ourselves in this regard," Mr Voravuth said. "With the lessons we have learned from the ARL mistakes, we will apply in the operation of this new line.

"There will be no train shortages, and maintenance will be more efficient. The government has already given us a deadline, where if we cannot meet set key performance indexes in five years' time, the Red Line will be given to a private firm to operate," he added.

Mr Voravuth said the SRT subsidiary, which operates the ARL, will be dissolved to make way for the EEC-backed three-airport high-speed railway since the network will share the current ARL's rails.

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