BANGKOK: One of Southeast Asia’s largest train stations fully opened for business Thursday around 10km north of central Bangkok in a development that the authorities hope will ease traffic in Thailand’s busy capital.
The station, built with public- and private-sector Japanese assistance, is expected to serve around one million passengers a day by 2032. But redevelopment in the surrounding area has stalled, posing a key test of Japan’s new approach to economic cooperation in a fast-growing region.
The 660m-long Krung Thep Aphiwat Central Terminal has 12 platforms with 24 tracks designed to serve commuter trains, long-distance trains, and, when available, high-speed rail.
Also known as Bang Sue Grand Station, the facility partly opened in 2021 for commuter trains to and from central Bangkok.
On Thursday, the 52 long-distance trains that used to arrive at or depart from Hua Lamphong, Bangkok’s old main station, were also rerouted to Krung Thep Aphiwat.
The change turns Krung Thep Aphiwat into a full-fledged transit hub for the Thai capital. Convenient transfers there are seen encouraging more travellers to choose trains over cars. By reducing the number of trains that need to cross roads, the new hub could also immediately ease congestion in the area.
“We hope that the new central station will create a seamless transportation network,” Thai transport minister Saksayam Chidchob said at its opening ceremony.
The Thai government envisions Krung Thep Aphiwat eventually becoming a gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia.
International tourists arriving at Don Mueang Airport could easily transfer trains at the station to Bangkok or another city. Thailand’s planned high-speed railway could also link the station to Suvarnabhumi Airport, which also serves the Bangkok area, as well as to Laos.
Meanwhile, Japan sees the project as a new model for cooperation in Southeast Asia. Economic growth has worsened traffic and other urban woes in Bangkok, as in such other regional hubs as Jakarta and Manila. Japan hopes that its know-how with trains can aid in the adoption of greener transit systems and boost infrastructure exports.
In response to Thai requests for help with modernising its railways, the Japanese government has approved a total of around ¥268 billion (US$2.1 billion) in loans since 2019 through the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Yen-denominated lending covered 80% or so of the cost of building Krung Thep Aphiwat, as well as the Dark Red Line that connects the station with Don Mueang International Airport.
Thai companies handled the construction work, while Japan’s Sumitomo Corp, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Hitachi provided train cars as well as electrical and mechanical systems.
Obstacles remain. Thailand aims to turn the entire 3.7 million square metres area around Krung Thep Aphiwat into a smart city.
But little progress has been made despite a memorandum of understanding signed in 2020 by the Japanese and Thai transportation ministries, Japan’s Urban Renaissance Agency and the State Railway of Thailand.
The plan, which includes new offices, commercial facilities and hotels, will require a total of more than 300 billion baht (US$9.2 billion) by its expected completion in the early 2030s, according to a Jica report. With limited funds of its own, the SRT sought private-sector partners in 2019 and 2021. It came up short both times.
“I have doubts on whether it will be worth the massive amount of investment it will take,” said an executive at a Japanese company that was invited to join.
Delays in high-speed rail projects are a major concern. A consortium led by Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group in 2019 won a contract to build a link between Don Mueang Airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport and the U-Tapao Rayong-Pattaya International Airport in the southeast.
Construction has yet to begin amid ongoing negotiations with the government regarding land rights and payments, and the line will almost certainly not start operating in 2024 as earlier planned.
A separate line to Laos, being built with technological assistance from China, is just 15% into its first phase. When construction began back in 2017, the line was supposed to open in 2021. But Covid-19 and land issues disrupted progress, and no contracts have been signed regarding the second phase.
Without high-speed service, traffic at Krung Thep Aphiwat is expected to fall short of current projections. This would deal a blow to the value of office buildings and commercial hubs near the station, potentially resulting in losses for involved businesses.
Japan and Thailand updated the redevelopment memorandum in late 2022, affirming that they would work together more closely.
They agreed to have the Urban Renaissance Agency set the direction of the project and take the lead on planning.
While the agency has a domestic track record that includes business plans for redevelopment in Tokyo’s Otemachi district and coordinating development around Osaka’s busy Umeda Station, how it will fare outside Japan remains to be seen.
China has expanded its infrastructure presence in Southeast Asia through its Belt and Road initiative. But countries worry about the risk of falling into debt traps by borrowing more than they can repay, and Japan sees demand for an alternative option.
“There are high hopes for Japan and its public-private partnership know-how,” a Japanese government insider said.