Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit has denied putting the brakes on the southern land bridge megaproject worth an estimated 1 trillion baht, though he says a thorough study is required before it can go ahead.
Wichai Sudsawat, a United Thai Nation (UTN) Party MP for Chumphon, previously expressed concern the project could be scrapped and urged the government to press ahead.
He said the project belonged to the previous government and was part of the UTN's plan to enhance connectivity in several areas -- including between land and marine infrastructure -- and bring economic prosperity to the southern region.
The land bridge project was initiated by the Prayut-Chan-o-cha government in 2021 to drive Thailand's economy, apart from the flagship Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) project covering parts of the eastern provinces of Chon Buri, Rayong and Chachoengsao.
The land bridge project is intended to connect the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand via Ranong and Chumphon provinces as a transit hub.
It also forms a part of the southern corridor, which comprises parts of Chumphon, Ranong, Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat provinces, Mr Wichai said.
His call came after Mr Suriya previously said the project has high investment costs and that other aspects, such as environmental concerns and cost-effectiveness, must be considered.
However, Mr Suriya later explained that he did not order the project to be scrapped and said the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning (OTP) is conducting a study on it.
"When the study is finished, the project will go ahead in line with procedures," the minister said.
He said that on Sept 14, he laid down a policy for agencies under the Transport Ministry.
At a meeting, Mr Suriya said he stressed the need for agencies to carry out their duties carefully and attach importance to solving problems that affect people's livelihoods.
He said the ministry's development projects will be prioritised based on the people's best interests, and all megaprojects that cost substantial sums of money must be studied carefully.
State agencies also must work together to ensure those projects deliver tangible results.
The OTP commissioned a company to conduct a feasibility study for the project, the required environmental impact assessment (EIA), construction design as well as analyse a business development model.
The study and the EIA began in March 2021 but they had to be extended as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
They are expected to be completed by next September, but the initial findings will be presented for consideration by the new cabinet next month.
Pongkawin Jungrungruangkit, the minister's adviser, said the EIA is expected to be presented for cabinet approval by the end of next year and a bidding will be open in the middle of 2025.
Panya: Foreign investors 'keen'
Feasibility study underway
OTP director Panya Chupanich said the feasibility study and the EIA are underway.
The land bridge project requires an investment of about 1 trillion baht, and it will come entirely from the private sector, he said, noting the government will only deal with land expropriation.
Previously, there were three foreign investors interested in the project, he said.
To draw more attention from foreign investors, the ministry also plans roadshows overseas, including China, the US and Europe, he said.
A public hearing will be held to gather opinions from all sectors including civil society to support the feasibility study, he said.
Under the project, a deep-sea port would be constructed at Laem Riw cape in Chumphon on the Gulf of Thailand side and the other at Laem Ao Ang cape in Ranong on the Andaman coast at a cost of more than 636 billion baht.
Each port would be able to handle about 20 million TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) of container throughput, he said.
As part of the project, a motorway and a dual-track railway will be constructed at a cost of more than 223 billion baht to connect the two southern provinces which are about 89.35km apart.
The Single Rail Transfer project valued at more than 141 billion baht will also be built to connect ship cargo with rail transport between the two provinces. The project will be carried out in four phases between 2025 and 2030, Mr Panya said.
He added that an initial plan to construct oil and gas pipelines along the motorway and the railway route was suspended because a study showed it was not worth investing in.
New logistics hub
"The land bridge project will become a new logistics and transport hub as well as a new route for shipping, serving as an alternative to the existing route for the shipment of goods from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Strait of Malacca," Mr Panya said.
"It will help cut travel time from nine days through the Strait of Malacca to five days, thus reducing costs.
"The project will also boost connectivity between the EEC project, the Greater Mekong Subregion, southern China, Asean and member countries of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation," Mr Panya said.
"Most importantly, the project is not intended to rival Singapore's port, but it will help support maritime transport in the region. The number of ships passing through the Strait of Malacca is increasing as sea traffic there is congested.
"The land bridge project will help cut transport time, with a new shipping route," Mr Panya said.
"A study shows that with the land bridge, a new shipping route will emerge connecting transport between the European Union, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China. Main customers will be feeder ships with a capacity of 5,000 to 6,000 TEUs.
"Port industries will emerge and free economic zones will be established to attract investment for further development of ports in Ranong and Chumphon," Mr Panya said.
"The land bridge project will also help support the development of Laem Chabang Port in Chon Buri and the EEC," he added.
Chaichan: Morestudy needed
Chaichan Charoensuk, chairman of the Thai National Shippers' Council (TNSC), welcomed the project, saying it will help boost logistics, transport and trade in the region.
"Thailand commands a strategic location which is an advantage," Mr Chaichan said.
However, he said the country is not recognised yet as a shipping hub because demand for shipping via the country is limited, compared to Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, which have long-established shipping networks.
In Thailand, no more than 10 million cargo containers are in use each year. Of them, 9 million are used in Laem Chabang port and the rest in Klong Toey port, Mr Chaichan said.
"But if the land bridge project materialises, it will serve as an alternative route for ships passing through the congested sea traffic lane at the Strait of Malacca," he said.
However, he also stressed the need to study the project carefully as it costs a huge sum of money to invest.
"If demand for shipping via Thailand is not enough, the project could backfire. We need to know how many shipping lines will be and where demand for containers comes from," he said.
He also said the proposed ports in Ranong and Chumphon under the land bridge project should be designed as "smart and green ones" or high-tech ports that are friendly to the environment.
Mr Chaichan said laws should also be amended to reduce unnecessary paperwork for shipping lines and make it easy for goods transshipment.
Kongrit Chantrik, executive director of the TNSC, said that if the government is concerned that any changes to laws related to transshipment will allow an influx of illegal into the country, a trial of the system should be held at Laem Chabang port for three months to assess its effectiveness.
"We must be attentive to detail as the land bridge project is a newcomer. We need to be sure customers receive good services," he said.
Kongrit: Focus on services
Meanwhile, Sombat Premprabha, vice chairman of the TNSC, said the OTP should review any plan to suspend the project to build the oil and gas pipelines as this project should greatly benefit the country.
He said he believed oil-rich countries in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, which now enjoys cordial relations with Thailand, would want to invest in the pipeline project.