Mass transit system fares are always a subject of debate after affordability became a core issue in the May 14 general election.
When Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit recently suggested the 20-baht-flat train fare was non-urgent and was not included in the government's policy, he triggered a public outcry.
Mr Suriya was forced to clarify the matter during a two-day debate on government policy, in which he said the 20-baht fare would be piloted on two mass transit lines -- the MRT Purple Line and SRT Red Line -- within the next three months as a "New Year gift".
According to Mr Suriya, it will take two years for the government to fully implement the flat-rate policy because complex legal issues involving private-sector investments in other electric rail routes and private-sector operations must first be sorted out.
However, Mr Suriya's clarification is "not good enough" in the eyes of consumers and transport analysts. Here, they offer their perspectives on how the 20-baht fare can be implemented sooner and urge the government to explore other ways to cut costs for consumers.
Saree: Emulate global ticket pricing trends
Long two-year wait
Saree Aungsomwang, secretary-general of Thailand Consumers Council (TCC), said the 20-baht-flat train rate can be implemented on systems invested by the government without having to wait.
These systems are the MRT Blue Line, the MRT Purple Line, the SRT Red Line and the SRT Yellow Line, she said, adding the entry fee or base fare should also waived when commuters transfer between them.
The TCC has been campaigning for affordable fares for commuters in Bangkok and the provinces, saying transport costs should not exceed 10% of the daily minimum wage or they would be too costly for many low-income people.
The current daily minimum wage in Bangkok is 353 baht, while fares range from 17–47 baht depending on the system and distance travelled.
According to Ms Saree, mass transit fares in other countries are lower than 10% of their minimum wage, with London's metro fare at 5% and Tokyo's at 9%, while German commuters just pay about 330 baht per month.
A TCC study analysing costs per trip from 204–2019 shows the average cost per person is between 10.10 and 16.30 baht, which is close to the figure of 11–13 baht revealed by Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt and City Hall officials during a discussion.
It may take time to implement the policy on other electric train systems, such as the Green Line, as they have private sector investors so negotiations will be more complicated.
The policy might need 5.44 billion baht in annual subsidy. She said further study is needed to see how large the funding burden would be.
However, she said the government will earn more income from increased ridership and should find new sources of income for the subsidy to limit the use of public funds, such as imposing a building tax on businesses like shopping malls that benefit from mass transit systems.
"The state subsidy is worth the investment considering that it could ease traffic jams, reduce air pollution and enhance people's quality of life," she said.
A transport service development fund could help local authorities develop their own mass transit systems to connect with other train systems.
"The mass transit system shouldn't be an alternative, but the primary system," Ms Saree said. "We must persuade people to leave their cars at home and switch to public transport."
Samart: Govt must compensate operators
More viable options
Former deputy Bangkok governor Samart Ratchapolsitte said the 20-baht-flat rate is not a problem if the government compensates for the difference in fare revenue earned by system operators, which are the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTSC), Bangkok Expressway and Metro (BEM) and SRT Electrified Train Co.
However, the estimated subsidy of 5 billion baht calculated by the Department of Rail and the expected 10% increase may not be realistic, he said, adding it is "too much" if commuters are charged only a 20-baht fare and have unlimited access to all systems.
He said he has a more practical proposal -- cap the mass transit system fare at 50 baht per day, and people can make unlimited trips across the systems.
"The government has to negotiate with the system operators and pay them compensation," he said. "Based on my estimation, it will require an annual subsidy of 7.5 billion baht."
He said this alternative will increase economic value as it shortens commute times, reduces fuel costs and lowers air pollution.
Agachai: Enhance our train services
Agachai Sumalee, a professor of transport systems at School of Integrated Innovation, Chulalongkorn University, said most commuters travel six to eight stations per trip, so the 20-baht fare may be adopted for those who travel no more than 10 stations.
Prof Agachai said the option should address arguments about the financial burden, while making baby steps towards revamping the train fare. He also suggested the government enhance train services instead of focusing on infrastructure development.
"The entire system must be developed," he said. "We should have a common ticketing system, and reduction of the entry fees is the first step in making fare affordable."
Chalie: State-invested systems first
Assoc Prof Chalie Charoenlarpnopparut, vice rector for academic affairs of Thammasat University, agreed the 20-baht flat rate should be implemented first in state systems.
He said the government should find new sources of income to subsidise the policy, for example through commercial development of train stations and advertising spaces.
The government has to come up with the right offer to incentivise the private sector to reduce fares, especially the holder of the Green Line concession, which is due to expire in 2029, he said.
Waiving the entry fee for those transferring between systems also can help reduce travel costs, he said.
"The policy is a challenge, but it can be met by using these two approaches," he said. "The costs range between 16 and 17 baht, so the figure is reasonable.
"I encourage the government to implement it as it will boost credibility and public support," he said.