Rail project right on time for election

Rail project right on time for election

In principle, China has mapped out a project to finance, plan, build, equip and run the dual-track Bangkok-Nong Khai railway favoured by the regime. (Photo via China.org.cn)

The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha late into the week came out to say Section 44 will be used to expedite the construction of the long-delayed 252-kilometre railway linking Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima.

The S44 order that was issued late on Thursday night cleared the technical and legal hurdles for the project to take off. It gave instructions to the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) to hire a Chinese state enterprise contractor to help facilitate and supervise the construction of the railway lines. But first the company needs to be certified by China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

This Chinese contractor would then oversee the design of the railway infrastructure as well as rail and electrical systems, provide trains, give training in system-related knowledge for the project, and also serve as an adviser for the project.

The order also requires the Transport Ministry to work with the Chinese company, the Council of Engineers and the Architect Council of Thailand to train and test engineers and architects before they get the licences.

After all the details have been completed the draft of the contract will be reviewed by the Ministry of Transport, the Office of the Attorney-General and finally the cabinet.

The use of S44 comes at a time when the coup-lead government of Gen Prayut officially heads into caretaker mode.

In any given scenario the job of the caretaker government is to look at maintaining the status quo and not undertake major policies that involve committing the country’s resources for years if not decades to come, as is the case with the rail project with China.

Gen Prayut’s government does not seem too concerned with this and is marching ahead with the project that will be implemented later this year. The prime minister’s aim is to speed up the process and have construction start no later than the third quarter, ahead of his planned summit in Xiamen, China in September where he will attend the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) meeting.

The Sino-Thai railway, which was supposed to be the highlight of his major infrastructure spending project, has been stalled due to legal issues. One of these is the requirement that contractors must have passed examinations to obtain a licence, with the test to be taken in Thai. Another issue is the transparency of the project, which would usually be monitored by the so-called “superboard” that oversees all state enterprises.

By resorting to the powerful S44 the Prayut administration has managed to clear these regulatory hurdles and expedite the process. The big question now is who is going to be responsible for the transparency of the multi-billion-dollar project.

The agencies involved in monitoring this, including the superboard, Transport Ministry and cabinet, not to mention the Attorney General, are all looking a little shaky after the issuance of S44 to speed the process up.

S44 basically silences opposition to any project, overriding the system of checks and balances that would make sure Thailand gets the best deal.

The rail project is important and many governments have been working on it over the years. It has been in the works since the Democrat Party was in power before the 2011 election and ministers from Thailand were shuttling between Beijing and Bangkok to undertake it. But the election put the Pheu Thai Party in power and the process ground to a halt.

When in power the Pheu Thai proposed a similar project but it was rejected by the Constitutional Court at the time due to concern about a lack of transparency. Then came the coup in 2014 and a similar project was put forward by the military government with minor tweaks. Now this seems to be on the way to becoming a reality under military rule.

People like myself are all for the project but I wonder how clean the process is going to be, especially as rumours swirl of kickbacks to contractors.

Then there is the issue of a possible election late next year. As any economist would tell you, the time between green-lighting a project and seeing the money flow in can be anywhere from nine to 12 months — around the time the election is expected.

Is that a coincidence? Certainly, signs of economic growth right before the polls could be an advantage to some.