Thailand’s rail network needs more care, less speed

Thailand’s rail network needs more care, less speed

Mark Elliott considers an alternative to Thailand's high-speed rail ambitions

Mark Elliott considers an alternative to Thailand's high-speed rail ambitions

I love travelling by train in Thailand, but even the biggest railway enthusiast (which I’m not) would admit that Thailand’s rail network isn’t the best in the world.

If you were planning a long distance journey in Thailand, train would probably be just about your last transport choice – beaten by air, bus and possibly buffalo. Journeys are slow, trains are old and the carriages are grubby. But I never really thought they were dangerous.

Thailand has suffered several derailments this year
Thailand has suffered several derailments this year

Unfortunately, in the last few months there has been a worrying rise in the number of derailments occurring in Thailand. Just last week a train travelling from Bangkok to Nong Khai came off the tracks in Udon Thani, injuring 10 people. This marked the latest in a series of such incidents to have occurred this year – I count 13 derailments so far in 2013, although I might have missed a couple By anyone’s standards, that’s pretty poor – especially when you railway network only has four main lines.

So it’s great that Thailand’s government is now planning to invest hundreds of billions of baht in a new high-speed rail network, isn’t it? The country wants to use bullet trains on all key routes from Bangkok, fanning out to the north, east, northeast and south.

There’s nothing wrong with bullet trains, of course. They look very slick and get people where they need to be quickly. But when your entire railway network is dilapidated and derailing, should speed really be the main consideration?

I would suggest that it might be better to develop a nationwide network of modern trains, connecting not only major cities  but also smaller towns across the country, allowing Thai people to travel in comfort and convenience, at a reasonable price.

A modern rail network would also open up Thailand’s countryside, getting tourists off the beaten track and on to the rural rails. Okay, it might not be the fastest rail journey in the world, but it needn’t be, if it allows people to sit back and enjoy the amazing scenery.

While bullet trains sound wonderful, in practice they only benefit a small percentage of people. Make the trains slower and more widespread, and everyone benefits. You never know; modernise the whole network, and Thailand’s rail network might just start to get a good reputation.

Mark Elliott
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