Plans for two new train lines in Thailand

UPDATE 2024: Neither the Den Chai to Chiang Khong or Ban Phai to Nakhon Phanom Railway Line projects have progressed since 2020.

9 August 2020: Earlier this week Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob announced that his ministry was forwarding proposals for two entirely new train lines to Thailand’s Cabinet for approval. The two new train lines would extend Thailand’s railway network northwards to Chiang Khong and north eastwards to Nakhon Phanom.

Den Chai to Chiang Khong via Chiang Rai

The first of the two proposals is a 326 km line from Den Chai to Chiang Khong via Chiang Rai. Den Chai is a minor railway station on Thailand’s Nothern Line, which runs from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, which is best known for being the station where passengers alight from the train to transfer to a bus to Phrae.

Wat Huay Pla Kang in Chiang Rai
Wat Huay Pla Kang in Chiang Rai

This proposed train route will open up lesser visited parts of country to tourists. Stops en-route will include Phrae town, Phayao and Chiang Rai before terminating in Chiang Khong, which is not far from the famous Golden Triangle where the Ruak River flows into the Mekong River forming a natural border between three countries: Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The proposed line is also likely to bring economic benefits in opening up cross border trade, particularly if exporters can be encouraged to transport more of their goods by freight train. Whether Thailand’s Cabinet believes that these benefits are great enough to justify the estimated cost of building the new line, 85 Billion Thai Baht, is something we will find out in early September 2020.

Ban Phai to Nakhon Phanom via Mukdahan

Ban Phai is a medium sized railway station on the northern section of Thailand’s North Eastern Railway, which runs from Bangkok to Nong Khai, located about 40 km south of Khon Kaen. The second proposed new line would run 355 km from Ban Phai to Nakhon Phanom via Mukdahan at at estimated cost of 68 Billion Thai Baht.

Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom
Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom

The Transport Minister is likely to have a more difficult task trying to convince Cabinet of the economic benefits of this route. Whilst Nakhon Phanom is a popular tourist destination, particularly Wat Phra That Phanom 60 km to the south, the route does not pass many other well known tourist destinations. The benefits in terms of increasing cross border trade are similarly unclear.

Mukdahan is some distance from the border crossing to the economically vibrant Laotian town of Savannakhet, although the border crossing near Nakhon Phanom does connect with a fast road route through Laos to the Central Region of Vietnam. If Laos improves its road network and operates cross border trade arrangements more efficiently, then potentially a new rail line could be used as an effective way of transporting goods and people a large part of the way between Vietnam and Bangkok. The Thai Cabinet is likely to want to see more progress in the Laotian Government developing its own domestic transport infrastructure before approving this second new railway line.

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