Junta critic: Thailand needs hyperloop, not Chinese rail

Attendees walk past a Virgin Hyperloop One XP-1 pod outside at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. (Bloomberg pic)

BANGKOK: A tycoon turned politician who opposes Thailand’s military government has criticised its US$5.6 billion (RM23.58 billion) high-speed rail project with China because hyperloop technology offers a more modern alternative.

An option such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One – which is working on building networks of pods traveling at airplane-like speeds – is better for Thailand as it would help the nation to be a technological leader, according to Future Forward Party head Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

“If you invest in high-speed trains, all you do is import everything from abroad, whereas with the hyperloop there’s an opportunity to build the industry in Thailand if you move first,” Thanathorn said in an interview on Monday.

Click to read about Thanathorn’s emergence as a political force

The military government in power since a coup more than four years ago has prioritised high-speed rail under a ฿2 trillion (RM256 billion) transport action plan it describes as the biggest such advance for Thailand in two decades.

The China project is the first part of a rail line that would eventually run to Laos.

Thanathorn argued that hyperloop technology can create more local jobs, apart from being environmentally friendlier and cheaper to build.

It would also be part of a balancing act so that Thailand isn’t reliant on China, he said in the interview in Bangkok.

“Many people said that this is just a dream,” he said. “But it’s our duty to propose new ideas. We need to dream big to get Thailand out of the middle-income trap.”

Thailand’s military government has focused on major transport projects under an effort to catalyse investment and bolster the economy.

Criticism of its policies has begun to intensify ahead of a long-delayed general election now expected in late February next year. Future Forward is one of a number of new parties formed ahead of the poll.

Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a government spokesman, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

A few firms and investors have been plowing money into the race for the first working hyperloop system since futurist and billionaire Elon Musk first theorised a model in 2013. Unlike bullet trains, the technology has yet to be deployed for everyday use.

Hyperloop One, which uses magnetic levitation and low-pressure tubes, has been testing in Nevada with speeds reaching 240 miles an hour, and is planning three production systems in service by 2021, according to its website.