Thoughts on Thai trains while waiting for the Chiang Mai-Bangkok airlift

The Bangkok-Chiang Mai air route flourishes while there is no plan for the slow Northern Line train.

The Bangkok-Chiang Mai air route is the second busiest in Thailand (after Bangkok-Phuket). I've flown many times between these two cities, which may surprise some people who pick me as a rail nerd. I'm an efficient transport nerd, and my work here is to promote building better railways in Southeast Asia. I've caught the train before, but I don't always have all day, and I don't sleep well on overnighters.

Today I was at CNX, marvelling at the number of flights to Bangkok (BKK/DMK). Here was this morning’s Chiang Mai-Bangkok airlift (with a Phuket flight thrown in).

If ever there was a need for an upgraded rail corridor it is this one. There was a proposed Shinkansen-style high-speed rail, but that has been put on hold. They don't need a gold-plated option like Shinkansen though (quoted at 300km/h). A standard-gauge railway at 200 km/h would do the job. 

The current train takes from 11 hours to 14 hours and 20 minutes to cover the 755 km distance. If they got it down to 4 hours then that would be enough to be a competitive alternative. The train would also have the advantage of benefitting  Phitsanulok (and Sukhothai), Lopburi, Ayutthaya, and other cities in Central and Northern Thailand.

Instead of improving the Bangkok - Chiang Mai corridor,  Thailand is continuing with its mixed-gauge upgrades. Yes, here I am going on about the mixed-gauge mess again.

I saw two articles this week that have made me think about the gauge situation, so I wrote this while flying when I should have been railing.

Here are some of the rail projects that Thailand is working on:

  • Bangkok - Nong Khai High-Speed Railway (standard gauge)

  • Bangkok - Nong Khai double-tracking project (metre gauge)

  • Don Muang-Suvarnabhumi-U-Tapao High-Speed Railway (standard gauge)

  • Southern (Bangkok-Hua Hin) double-tracking project (metre gauge)

As you can see, there is a mix of upgrading the old metre gauge and building new standard gauge railways.

What Thailand should have done was embark on a program to convert the entire system to a semi-high-speed standard-gauge railway system (around 160-200km/h).

This would have consolidated the Bangkok - Nong Khai corridor into one line, and that would be compatible with the Laos-China Railway.

Laos built its railway in 5 years (technically China did), while Thailand is still labouring through these two separate projects.

I was thinking about this line again because it was announced this week that Nok Air would restart Bangkok - Nakhon Ratchasima flights.

This is a short distance, but it takes 3h 48m on the fastest train. The high-speed rail is expected to take 77 minutes. The crazy part of this restarted flight is that it departs from Don Muang, where the Bangkok - Nakhon Ratchasima train stops along the way.

If Thailand had just built this railway when Laos started building their railway, there would be a fast train to Nakhon Ratchasima by now.

Another absurdity is the Don Muang-Suvarnabhumi-Pattaya-U-Tapao High-Speed Railway. They are now planning to extend this through Rayong all the way to Trat. No disrespect to the good people of Trat, but there is no reason to build a high-speed railway to Trat. The State Railways of Thailand have painted themselves into a corner by building this high-speed railway to Rayong (U-Tapao Airport). No one needs to get from Suvarnabhumi to Pattaya that fast. A semi-high-speed railway would have sufficed, which would be a sensible railway to extend into the east.

Coming back to the Chiang Mai railway, work is now proceeding on the branch line from Den Chai to Chaing Rai (and then to the Laos border at Chiang Khong). This is going to be a metre-gauge railway, so if the Bangkok-Chiang Mai railway is upgraded in the future then this line becomes incompatible.

Slow train apologists say how great travel by train is, but the slow train isn’t going to win the general population over. It was interesting to read this article, which says to skip the sleeper train and book a short-haul flight. People want convenience, which was evident in my full flight today. Unfortunately, State Railways of Thailand have an inconsistent expansion plan that will not improve travel between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

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