Thailand Revives Rail Links with Neighbours

Hat Yai is to be turned into a future rail hub between Thailand and Malaysia. (Photo of 2016)

Thailand wants to become a rail hub for the northern part of Southeast Asia, a natural position for the Kingdom. After reviving a rail link between Thailand and Cambodia after decades of interruption, the country now is looking  to also reactivate a rail connection with neighbouring Malaysia, between Sungei Kolok and Tumpat in Kelantan.

Authorities are hoping to revive train service between Sungai Kolok and Tumpat in Kelantan. Both cities are located 40 km away from each other.

The short rail route has a long history. In 1954, the State Railway of Thailand and the Federated Malay States Railways signed a joint train service treaty that covered service between Sungai Kolok and Tumpat. However, the service was halted about two decades ago because the route was being increasingly used for smuggling both goods and people. A real issue as security deteriorated in Thailand most Southern Provinces. Although the safety situation in Thailand Deep South is still not fully restored, both Thai and Malaysian governments believe that economic and social conditions of today would make the link viable again.

For the time being, Thailand is only connected to Malaysia by rail along the west coast of the Malaysian Peninsula, to Padang Besar, 57 km south of Hat Yai. Trains on the Thai side are awfully slow, taking an hour to reach the border, where passengers then clear immigration and transfer to Malaysian trains towards Alor Setar and Butterworth (Penang).

The move is seen as enabling an improvement in connectivity between both countries. The proposal is being spearheaded by the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), which recently met with rail authorities of both Malaysia and Thailand in the presence of the Thai consul-general in Kelantan and the Malaysian consul-general in Songkhla. The revival project is part of the commitment to enhance road and rail connectivity as discussed at the end of last year by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his Malaysian counterpart, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

“The reopening of the railway will not take long. Development will be seen within this year. The beginning today will lead to a long-term connection in the future,” declared SBPAC general secretary RAdm Somkiat. The future rail link will then connect to the existing rail track between Sungei Kolok and Hat Yai.

The project is part of Thailand commitment to turn the Kingdom into a rail hub in Southeast Asia and is part of the ambitious Chinese-spearheaded development of a rail connection between Yunnan and Singapore via Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. In recent years, Thailand has looked at reviving rail links. The Kingdom is now linked by rail to Laos from Nong Khai, although the rail service in Laos only stretches on a couple of kilometers.

Prime Ministers Hun Sen and Prayut Chan-o-cha in the first train linking Thailand to Cambodia last April (Photo AFP)

In April of this year, Thailand and Cambodia officially reopened the rail track linking both Kingdoms together, after an interruption of 46 years. On April 22, both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Cambodian Premier Hun Sen presided over a ceremony to reopen the track connecting Aranyaprathet district in Sakaeo with Cambodia’s Poipet town. Both leaders met at Ban Klong Luk Border station at the Thai border and symbolically ride a historic train for two kilometres across the border to Poipet.

Thailand refurbished and offered to Cambodia a carriage in a goodwill gesture. A regular service between Phnom Penh and Thailand is however not expected to start before next year, both railways administration working on a future schedule. Cambodia completed last year the restoration of the 385- kilometre track from Phnom Penh to Poipet. However, there is only one service per week as Cambodia Royal Railways have not sufficient rolling stock.