Policy-makers need to stick to a specific width for the country's railway lines or expect sky-high costs, transport experts said yesterday.
Suchatvee Suwansawat, president of the Engineering Institute of Thailand (EIT), called on the Transport Ministry to make a decision, saying the current use of two different gauges will hamper long-term railway development.
He made the call at a seminar on railroad infrastructure reform yesterday.
In a memorandum of understanding signed with China last December, Thailand agreed to build two railway routes using 1.435-metre standard gauge tracks.
However, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has been using the 1-metre gauge system for years.
Mr Suchatvee's call was echoed by Sumeth Ongkittikul, research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute.
"The cost will be sky-high if the government does not pick one, as money will be spent in maintaining and developing both systems at the same time," Mr Sumeth said.
If Thailand decides to switch entirely to 1.435-metre standard gauge tracks, it will have to make large-scale investment, he said.
The existing 1-metre gauge tracks will have to be pulled out and re-aligned to fit the new standard.
But this will not effect the Sino-Thai investment to build two rail routes totalling 867km — due to start construction in September, he said.
Thailand's existing railway routes total 4,000km.
Keeping Thailand's entire railroad system on 1-metre gauge tracks would minimise construction costs, said Mr Sumeth.
However, it may prove problematic in the long run, he added.
Because most countries rely on standard-gauge, the majority of train vehicles, appliances and railway-related technology is produced to fit the 1.435-metre tracks.
Therefore, if Thailand stays at 1-metre gauge, it will be harder to find suitable materials and they will be more expensive, he said.
Engineers have suggested the government examine both alternatives carefully and base their decision on suitability and potential for profit.
"This means that the Transport Ministry will need to shape a long-term railway policy, instead of deciding on its direction one project at a time," Mr Sumeth said.
He also called for the government to play a larger role in railway infrastructure investment, as a way to boost the sector's development.
The state has more means to engage in large-scale infrastructure projects than the private sector, he argued, advocating more cooperation between both parties.
He suggested future railway investments be made by the state, while operational costs and maintenance expenses be left to the SRT.
Mr Suchatvee also said the surge in railway infrastructure investment only started around 10 years ago.
Little attention was paid to developing Thailand's railroads before this period, causing them to fall behind those of other Asian nations.
"We never took proper care of our railway transport system but are now eyeing the latest transport technologies such as high-speed trains," he said.
The government should set its priority on the development of railway routes and their penetration into remote areas and provinces, so the whole population can gain better access to trains.
"Look at the US or the United Kingdom. They developed railway systems early on, but neither of them has high-speed trains," Mr Suchatvee said.
It is for each country to find the transportation modes that suit it best, he said.