KHON KAEN—The construction of the first urban rail network in Thailand outside of Bangkok will begin in 2024 in the city of Khon Kaen, which is located in the country’s northeastern region.
The 21 billion baht (S$813 million) light rail system project will cover a distance of 26 kilometers and run across the city. It will also connect to the mega-high-speed railway from China via Laos and Thailand.
The idea was initially suggested eight years ago and is part of the province’s more extensive Smart City Development Plan, with more than 100 projects in the works.
It aims to alleviate traffic congestion and pioneers the idea that provinces can have the ability to undertake large-scale projects on their own without having to rely on the central government in Bangkok to lead such efforts.
Suradech Taweesaengsakulthai, president and chief executive officer of Cho Thavee and a founding member of the Khon Kaen Think Tank (KKTT), is one of the local groups that worked to negotiate the project’s permission with the national government.
Under Thailand’s highly centralized system of government, the national government has a tight grip on the federal budget, and most of the country’s resources are usually concentrated in Bangkok or other cities targeted for development.
“For a project like this, people usually rely on the central government to plan and lead it. But here in Khon Kaen, we saw the pain points of the city.”Suradech Taweesaengsakulthai, president and chief executive officer of Cho Thavee and a founding member of the Khon Kaen Think Tank (KKTT)
Khon Kaen has almost two million residents and is home to Khon Kaen University, which has more than 40,000 students. This is the reason why this city is not a popular tourist destination.
But, like Bangkok, it now has problems with traffic congestion and overpopulation as it has changed quickly from an industrial area to a regional center for financial, educational, and administrative activities.
According to Jackrit Kamudhamas from Khon Kaen University, the fact that the light rail project was approved and started in a secondary province like Khon Kaen shows the fight against the unequal distribution of resources between the capital and regional cities.
Mr. Suradech, a city resident, determined it was time to act independently, even if it meant contributing their own money.
“We have money. So we agreed that we would each put in 10 million baht. If that could develop Khon Kaen for the better, that’s a bet we were willing to make,” he said.
The KKTT was started by 20 local businessmen, academics, and community leaders in 2015 with a registered capital of 200 million baht to build the city’s infrastructure.
While the initiative does not rely on central government financing, it still requires adequate official recognition and assistance. Mr. Suradech has spent the last eight years trying to get approval from various local, regional, and central agencies.
From 2014 until 2019, Thailand was led by the now-defunct NCPO. It took four years for the light rail project to get final approval from the Prime Minister’s Office in 2018 after going through the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Transport.
“We told the government—at that time, the NCPO (National Council for Peace and Order)—that this project is different. We just need your approval; we will find the money and run everything by ourselves. So this was key,” said Suradech.
Suradech added that rather than subvert the central government, the most crucial aspect is to disrupt the governing processes and allow provinces to embark on initiatives to benefit their cities.
The project is expected to have an internal rate of return—a measure of how profitable it will be—of more than 9%, allowing the KKTS to borrow money to back the project.
A study by the Bank of Thailand said that the Khon Kaen light rail network could create additional employment opportunities and 1.5 percent economic growth.
“People used to tease us a lot before this, but once Khon Kaen starts piling works and has its opening ceremony, I’m sure people will want to do what we have done,” Suradech remarked.
Other provinces have also started their versions of the KKTS, and in January 2022, the government said it would speed up rail projects in six provinces, including Khon Kaen.
News source: The Straits Times/Asia News Network