6 June 2024

The Transport Ministry has long been considered one of the most coveted portfolios in the Cabinet due to the large projects for investment and management, ranging from airports to high-speed rail. 

Political parties in a coalition government often bargain hard over who should get the post, as the Transport Minister enjoys enormous political clout.

In the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration, ruling coalition partner Bhumjaithai Party, whose support became crucial for the Palang Pracharath Party to form the government after the 2019 general election, took control of the Transport Ministry.

In a dramatic development, towards the end of the coalition government’s stay in power, Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob got suspended by the Constitutional Court pending a ruling over his alleged share concealment.

Saksayam was accused of having a stake in Buri Charoen Construction Co Ltd.

The Constitutional Court accepted a petition by opposition party members who accused Saksayam of concealing his assets and using a nominee to hide ownership of the company to win ministry construction projects.

The minister rejected the allegations, and said he would fight them in court.

Under fire from opposition

His performance at the helm of the ministry has been controversial. The opposition accuses him of lack of transparency in the bidding process for the Pink Line railway project in Bangkok. Saksayam has rejected the accusations.

Critics believe he failed to make mass transit railway service in Bangkok accessible for everyone because of the high fares.

He could not work with Bangkok governors to sort out the legal and financial issues related to the Green Line mass-transit routes.

The Green Line has run into more controversy following the latest decision by the National Anti-Corruption Commission to indict the former Bangkok governor, senior executives and chairman of BTS Group Holdings Plc over alleged irregularities in the contract extension of the Green Line.

Opposition seeks injunction against transport minister contesting election

A new approach needed

Is it possible to make rapid changes in the development of the country’s transportation when a new government takes office after the general election?

By their very nature, big transportation projects take time in terms of their planning and implementation.

“We may not see new projects emerge, rail mass-transit projects in Bangkok have been implemented for many years by several governments,” said Sumet Ongkittikul, a research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute, an independent think-tank.

So far, he said there had been no clear stance on transport development by any political party.

Some issues could be fixed in the next four years, but the biggest challenge remains how to make fares affordable to the majority of the people, he said.

Task cut out for next government

The next government may need to revive several concessions given to private sectors under the public-private partnership scheme, for example by extending the concession period in exchange for lower fares. Or the government could give cash subsidies to passengers.

Public bus services feeding passengers to the main railway lines would also be much easier to implement in the next government’s term, said Sumet, who specializes in transportation and logistics policy.

Another serious issue is the toxic air pollution, which has aggravated the presence of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5). Bangkok and other major cities have suffered aggravated air pollution this year.

Among other factors, traffic congestion in urban areas contributes to the rise in PM2.5 particles, which is harmful to people’s health. The adoption of electric cars may require more time. But the government should accelerate the adoption of electric public buses, he suggested.

Decentralization of transport development  

The idea of decentralization of transport development has been floated for many years, but it has failed to materialize. The new government could accelerate it, should it have the political will and resources to subsidize local governments.

Currently, political power and resources are concentrated in the central government via many ministries and agencies, such as Transport, Interior and Finance ministries, and state-owned enterprises, such as State Railways of Thailand and Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA).

Currently rail mass-transit transport in urban areas is only available in Bangkok. Among local governments nationwide, Bangkok is the only one that develops rail projects.

“The next government needs to accelerate decentralization. The proposed rail project in Khon Kaen should be able to take off,” said Sumet, referring to a long-waited light rail project in the big Northeastern metropolitan city, which also suffers from traffic jams and air pollution.

Thailand’s general election set for May 14th

The Khon Kaen initiative

There is some hope that Khon Kaen’s light rail mass- transit project, to be built at a cost of 21 billion baht, could kick off soon as many hurdles, including the right to use state land controlled by the Finance Ministry’s Treasury Department, seems to have been cleared.

Suradech Taweesaengsakulthai, president and chief executive of transport and manufacturing company Cho Thavee, said that the building of the 26km light rail project would start next year, the Singapore-based Straits Times newspaper recently quoted him as saying.

Suradech is a founding member of the Khon Kaen Think Tank Co Ltd (KKTT), one of the local groups campaigning to build mass transit projects in the provinces.

The KKTT was formed by 20 local businessmen, academics and community leaders in 2015 with a registered capital of 200 million baht for building the city’s infrastructure.

Five Khon Kaen municipalities along the tram line also established the Khon Kaen Transit System Co Ltd (KKTS), a public company, to develop and manage the mass-transit system in urban areas.

Question mark

Sumet is pessimistic due to two major issues. Firstly, it is unclear whether the local government and private companies would get the final green light from the central government.

Secondly, the project cost is huge and needs a large subsidy from the central government. Projected revenue from fare collection is unlikely to be adequate to finance the projects, said Sumet.

Revenue from property and commercial development projects along the route is not clear yet, as KKTT and KKTS do not own the land.

However, should the project dubbed the Khon Kaen Model get off the ground, it would set a direction for mass-transit projects in other provinces such as Phuket, Songkla’s Hat Yai and Chiang Mai on which the MRTA had previously done some studies, Sumet said.

By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk