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Thai-China High-Speed Railway

With the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, China and Thailand launched an 845-km railway project linking the Thai capital Bangkok with the northeastern city of Nong Khai near Laos, part of a Pan-Asia railway network, in late 2015. The project would be connected to the China-Laos railway which connects Laos with the vast railway system in China. It will only take around 18 hours to send rice to China by train, with the freight cost lowered to about one third of that of road or sea transport.

The building of a high-speed rail network, a major Belt and Road project, in Thailand is set to start in 2017. Its a complicated design involving both China and Thailand, but agreements have been reached in many areas.

At Bangkok railway station, people are waiting to depart the aging train to Nong Khai, on Thailands northern border with its neighbor Laos. The 620-kilometer journey can take up to 14 hours. Only the poor, and those with time on their hands, take this train.

But China and Thailand have an ambitious plan. In a key project under Belt and Road, the two countries are collaborating to build a multi-million dollar high-speed rail network. At around 200 kilometers per hour, it would shorten the travel time between Bangkok and Nong Khai to just four hours. More importantly, the vision is to connect to a new network being built in Laos, which would travel all the way to Kunming in southern China. In the other direction, the train would head south through Malaysia to Singapore, creating a truly Pan-Asian rail network.

A high-speed train would offer an alternative to travel by sea and air, for both passengers and freight. China is also building a new railway in Laos, cutting a swathe through the mountainous country over 154 bridges and through 76 tunnels.

The planned China-Thailand railway linking the Thai-Lao border with Bangkok will benefit Thailand as the high-speed railway is expected to improve local people's livelihood, the Thai transport minister said. "We don't have a high-speed railway here in Thailand yet, but we foresee that high-speed railways can bring change to the life of Thais, as (what has been) proved in China," Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said in an interview with Xinhua December 18, 2016.

He believed that once the traveling time from Bangkok to cities along the railway is cut to one or two hours, these cities with railway stations may have a great chance to attract more people and investment becasue of the high living costs in Bangkok. "The economic benefit is much higher than financial return," he said, adding that he learned from China that high-speed railways did help cities to attraction more population and investment.

Arkhom also mentioned that the 873-km railway can help bring more Chinese tourists to the kingdom and thus benefit its tourism. "The traveling time from the northeastern Nong Khai province on the Thai-Lao border to Thai capital Bangkok will be shorter and it may attract Chinese tourists who like to travel by train," he said.

Around 8 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2015 and the number for Chinese tourists this year is expected to exceed 9 million. China is now the largest source of visitors to Thailand, accounting for about 30 percent of all international tourists. Lao people may also find the railway a convenient means of transport for them, as one-seventh of the landlocked country's 7 million population visited Thailand yearly.

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The China-Thailand high-speed railways are a part of the networks that connect Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. They will also be transportation and logistics arteries linking China's Yunnan Province with the Greater Mekong Sub-region countries. The Thailand project is likely to be extended through Malaysia to reach Singapore. But the China-Thailand railway project, well known for its repeated timetable delays.

For China, railway routes could reach out to the Gulf of Thailand, facilitating its access to the Indian Ocean and providing China's western development with a broad market and sizeable funds. In mid-2014 Thailand approved a $23 billion transport project that would see two high-speed railways link up directly with China. China-Thailand rail cooperation has taken the lead in China-ASEAN cooperation. The 1,800-kilometer-long Kunming-Bangkok Expressway, was opened to traffic in 2008.

It will take only one day for Thailand's fresh fruits to enter supermarkets in Kunming. Convenient railway linkage will also boost foreign investment in the region along the line, closely linking the area with China's southwestern region in the process of industrial upgrading.

China has also become Thailand's largest source of tourism. If Thailand waives visas for Chinese visitors in future, more Chinese can go on private trips by train, and a sharp increase in the number of Chinese visitors will generate considerable profits for the Thai tourism industry.

The China-Thailand railway project goes back to the era when former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was in power. In October 2013, Thailand and China signed an agreement concerning China's rail technology exports along with Thailand's agricultural products imports. After a military coup that ousted Shinawatra in 2014, the two countries subsequently reaffirmed their intention on the railway cooperation in a memorandum of understanding. Since then, the suggested timeframe for the construction of the railway has been repeatedly pushed back due to various issues, including route designs and costs.

China and Thailand are working together to sign two contracts of the first phase of Thailand-China railway project in September 2017 to begin the construction work of the first section in October 2017, Chinese Embassy in Bangkok said in a statement. According to the statement, the two countries concluded negotiations of the contract of design work of the first phase of Thailand-China railway project and agreed on the price in the supervision contract during the 20th meeting of Joint Committee on Railway Cooperation between Thailand and China. "It is a new significant progress that the project made after being approved by Thai cabinet and Thailand's National Legislative Assembly," the statement said.

It also mentioned that both sides had been required to accelerate their work to make it possible for the two sides to sign the two contracts in September and to begin the construction work of the first section in October. The construction of first phase, or the 253 kilometers railway from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, will start gradually from the first 3.5 km section, the second 11 km section, the third 119 km section and finally the fourth 119 km section.

The railway project will also be further extended from Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai on Thai-Lao border, which is called the second phase. "The preparation work for the second phase of the project will start soon," the embassy said. China and Thailand have held meetings of Joint Committee on Railway Cooperation for 20 times over the past two years, the statement said both sides have overcome many difficulties and solved many problems. Chinese side will be responsible for the design work and supervision, which will incorporate many Thai engineers and architects while the Thais will be responsible for construction work. The project will also use Thai equipments and materials as much as possible.

Once finished, the project will be the first standard gauge high speed railway of the Thailand and the railway, according to the statement, "will improve Thailand's transport system, enforce its role as the transport hub in the region, boost economic growth in the country, especially its northeastern part, contribute to the Eastern Economic Corridor project and benefit other countries along the railway."

The Thai side is putting more emphasis on attracting more Chinese investment and cooperation to develop its coastal areas, but many Thais can only see limited economic gain from a railway that links its capital with its northeastern provinces, Laos and then Southwest China's Yunnan Province.




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