Wednesday, 17 February 2016

ASEAN and hispeed rail

Khun Sutapa Amornivart, EVP and Chief Economist at Siam Commercial Bank, wrote wisely and well in yesterday’s Bangkok Post article on why mega-investment projects are required in Thailand:

The macro-economics of the US Federal Reserve, Nikkei and Chinese trade aside, the deeper and specific concerns detailed for the Thai economy are real: reduced Asian exports, drought along with the new cold snap, plus reduced prices for commodities such as rice, and rubber, and so on.

Transport megaprojects (3TN THB combined) are the shot in the arm the Thai economy needs to avoid softer growth. And rather than a mere bubble of liquidity, if managed well, the longer-term investment should provide the stable, peaceful and prosperous growth Thailand and ASEAN needs.

The glittering, world-class, success of both Bangkok’s SkyTrain and the MRT underground show the way.

Almost ending the nightmare BKK traffic jams in less than a decade is astonishing. Personally I would travel no other way in BKK. And the extension of the Purple Line this year marks the rigorous expansion into the provinces.

As do the improvements, in the Airport RailLink – albeit with concerns over disabled access and luggage lifts. And the refinement this month of the workhorse of Thai aviation with Don Muang focused on domestic flights to tightly link the changwats to BKK in less than an hour’s flight.

All are a boon for both domestic –and ASEAN- business travel and international tourism, opening up the likes of Loei, Chanthaburi, Trang and Nan as part of the new Thainess Tourism programmes too.

While the engineering plans for a London Embankment-style promenade along Bangkok’s klongs for pedestrians and cyclists is similarly superb.

And certainly more important than say the overbuild of yet more empty provincial mega-highways, or even HCMC’s slavish following of London Docklands’ drab architecture for its Heritage city, or the ongoing pollution of China’s smog-filled cities and new Ghost Town cities.

But as a UK political candidate and advocate of Thailand: I would argue for greater integration of such mega-transport projects with Britain and beyond.

A recent Economics report highlighted 50% of humanity is clustered in Northern India, Eastern China and Indonesia – along with a smattering of European and US cities.

50% of humanity on Bangkok’s doorstep – some 3.5BN people, and likely to increase to c.5BN over the next generation or two.

Surely hispeed rail – and forgive me for a minor piece of Great British flag-waving pride in the Brits and Scots-Canadians who built much of Asia’s railways – is the way forward for investment in sustainable population growth?
Surely Thailand’s investment plan should be fast-forwarding rail links to these 3 (essentially urban) mega-conurbations: Bangladesh to Beijing and the beaches of Bali – all via Bangkok if you will?

Being able to offer such hispeed travel in a day or so from Bangkok to the beaches of Bali or business centres of Yunnan, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing must surely be desirable?

But, more needs to be done, given even Bangkok to Battambang currently proves impossible by rail or with too-clunky border systems from the destruction of Cambodian rail from the Khmer Rouge era. Surely the AIIB and ADB and Thai priority of the next few years?

And only last year the Japanese-funded bridge at Neak Loueng allows for the road link to HCMC, Asia’s 2nd city. Without getting your feet wet on the rather dangerous ferry.

Surely Thai, ASEAN and farang tourists would rapidly fulfil the desired 30M target by Thai Tourism – and 10% of the Thai workforce -with such improvements?

Improvements that along with the rail-links to the deep sea port at Vinh-DaNang would also provide huge Pacific trade links whether TPP happens or not? Not least given the large UK investment in a new DaNang University by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Certainly links more viable than the economic tweaks or major environmental concerns over the unusual Dawei deep sea port project, a port still some decades away and likely to reduce trade and add to overbuild given Yangon port and BKK’s triumvirate at Laem Chabang and Klong Toei and Sattahip, as well as Sihanoukville and Singapore.
And what use are such ports without rail links anyway?

And slightly shame-faced I must confess the flag-waving embarrassment of the UK removing the Kwai rail link from Kanchanaburi into Myanmar after 1945, despite the price paid in blood by thousands of Allied prisoners of war from Britain, Holland, Australia amongst many other nations, and hundreds of thousands Asian workers.

Delivering such mega-transport policies would cement Thailand as a 21st century economy- if handled sustainably with solar power and forestry Climate Change work. Although Visit ASEAN 2017 and even Nha Trang 2016 may be something of a damp squib so far – and the Hanoi 2019 Games a resounding failure – in cohesive ASEAN planning.

Surely the opportunity though is for Thailand’s lead planners to ensure Bangkok as the nodal point not just for the Greater Mekong Subregion mainland, but through to the Indonesian islands and perhaps even through to Australia’s East Coast and largest cities and markets, and all at hispeed rather than creaking along by bus or snail-rail?

Indeed with Thailand as Asia’s Detroit for auto work shouldn’t the huge Indian, Chinese and European car markets be more tightly and better linked by car-rail transporters? And the possibility developed of the Canada, US and Latin American markets reached on dry land via the Bering Strait road/rail tunnel?
Certainly worth considering in advance of the US-ASEAN Summit in California in a fortnight, and latter China-ASEAN Summit.
In comparison, does a Dawei decades-away or China Rail through the empty highlands of Laos really provide the best value for the Thai taxpayer? Funds that would diverted from welfare support such as rubber or rive markets or world-class healthcare and have valid claims to future investment?

Could an SCB-SCG-SRT Partnership deliver on such activity? And with British support? A 3SGB if you will?
The Kent-London HS1 hispeed route with Hitachi, and Channel tunnel link to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are huge successes of such engineering and investment.

While CrossRail (Europe’s largest construction project) across London (underneath the Underground and the even larger new SuperSewer) from the 2012 Olympics site (the previous largest European project!) in Docklands to Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport and the new 24/7 London Underground this year are similar massive mega-investment successes.

Such a UK-Thai partnership should also assist with say Thai Airways seeking the best slots at Heathrow (yet another UK mega-transport project from this year) or Gatwick or Stansted given such mega-transport coordination from and with Bangkok?

Why wouldn’t the City of London and Britain’s 1M tourists want to be more closely linked to Bangkok? Indeed everyone is already pushing in the same direction: Team Thailand in Europe is already active in seeking to replace the SSI 30% investment in UK. While Team Britain in Thailand is active in supporting not just Bangkok, but also UK investment into the provinces at Khon Kaen or Isaan as a whole, amongst the other Thai regions.

And all the more important given the importance of English as the 2nd language of ASEAN - why wouldn’t a deeper Thai relationship expand the already tripled Chevening scholarships and access to 120 UK universities, and hundreds more 6th form colleges and language schools, and thousands of teachers?

And both nations face similar challenges in China’s 11M graduates each year (larger than the entire Thai or UK youth populations – cited by former UK PM Gordon Brown the UN Envoy for Education) or Thailand’s challenge in the face of English-speaking expertise in much of ASEAN say Singapore and Philippines.

Khun Sutpa’s article is right to highlight the need for a variety of sustainable projects in the economic downturn: something more valid than the economics of paying a man to dig a hole then paying another man to fill it in.

Industries highlighted in her article are relevant for other BKK investment in the sinking skyscrapers of HCMC such as the reworking of the klongs as part of sewer and water purification projects. Why should Singapore be the only Asian capital with drinkable tap water?

And regarding Thailand’s future auto experience systematically regeared to access the Space Industries growth niches to fuel Star City in Kazakhstan. Again ripe for UK collaboration from the 2nd UK astronaut circling above our heads now, and various EU Space Centres.

Surely such activity should feature on the EU and Japan agendas for the G7 Summit in Shima, Japan this May, as part of Asia’s aim to shine at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – as a precursor from the inauguration of the shinkansen for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

While, more prosaically but no less important, as both Sports Diplomacy and trade activity, the Bike for Dad event should stimulate the UK and Thai bicycle industries and even a Tour de Bangkok cycle race could follow hard on the heels of the new Tour de Canterbury and Tour de Yorkshire expansions of that quintessentially French and Belgian event.

While if Britain revels in the French supposed insult of being a nation of shopkeepers, then surely access to UK retail markets for Thai textile and silk arts should also feature prominently in the future?

The appetite in UK is there for greater activity with Thailand for mutual benefit.

It simply needs to be grasped.

Time for Change

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