CONSTRUCTION crews are this month set to complete work to dismantle the pillars that remain from Bangkok's abandoned Hopewell railway project. Nicknamed "Bangkok Stonehenge" by local residents, the concrete structures have lingered as blunt reminders of the political instability which sunk the project in the late 1990s, and many other proposals to improve Thailand's infrastructure which have failed since.

That the dismantling work is taking place to make way for an extension of the city's Red Line commuter service could be a sign that the tide is about to turn. Yet the political protests that are shaking the capital and led to a snap general election in February show that political instability remains, and that no-one should count a Thai chicken before it comes home to roost.

Officials are optimistic, however, that spending on infrastructure will remain a priority no matter who forms the next government. This was evident in the director general of Thailand's Office for Transport Policy and Planning, Dr Chula Sukmanop's, assertions to IRJ in December. He said that despite the delays that might result to Thailand's high-speed rail projects, he is optimistic the four lines being studied will eventually be built due to support for the undertaking from "every political party" and the "majority of the people".

Sukmanop's sentiments extend to Bangkok, where the need for further investment in its metro and other railway projects is clear to anyone who visits the city. Traffic congestion remains a major headache throughout the sweltering and polluted metropolis, despite the introduction of the Blue Line of the city's metro, the airport express link and the Sukhumvit and Silom lines of the elevated BTS Skytrain.

BangkokIn November the Thai senate voted to support a bill to enable the government to borrow up to Baht 2.2 trillion ($US 66.65bn) to fund infrastructure projects, including the city's metro along with the high-speed and track-doubling programmes. This appears to have given fresh impetus to the Bangkok Mass Rapid Transit Masterplan, which was announced in 1994 and was due to be completed in 2011, but has been reissued on numerous occasions since as various projects have failed.

The latest restructuring was announced in 2010. It outlines plans for the development of 508km of infrastructure consisting of the already-completed airport rail link, two commuter heavy rail lines, five MRT routes and four feeder lines between 2010 and 2029.

Construction on four lines is already underway, including the 27km, 19-station extension of the Blue Line which serves the city centre. Work commenced in August 2012 on the scheme which will add a 13km north-south elevated section from Bang Sue to Tha Phra, and a 14km western extension from Hua Lamphong to Lak Song. This includes a 5.4km underground section through Chinatown and under the Chap Praya River to Tha Phra, where it surfaces and continues to the terminus at Lak Song. Work has been divided into five contracts and is scheduled to be completed in 2015 on the 1.2km section from Bang Sue to Tao Poon, and the remainder of the line by 2017.

The developments at Bang Sue are significant as the station is set to become the central hub for railway operations in Bangkok. A new 16-platform mainline station is proposed for the site with Sino-Thai Engineering & Construction and Unique Engineering & Construction winning a Baht 28.8bn contract for the work in January 2013. The project also encompasses building 6.2km of elevated railway, a station at Chatuchak and a depot and stabling facilities.

One of the services that will utilise the expanded facilities at Bang Sue is the aforementioned metre-gauge Red Line, which is operated by State Railway of Thailand (SRT). The 15.3km first phase of the line from Taling to Bang Son opened in 2012 with SRT operating a dmu shuttle service on the section. Work is continuing to connect this line to Bang Sue while a construction contract worth Baht 21.24bn for the next 20.2km phase from Bang Sue to Ringsit was awarded to Italian-Thai Development in January 2013. The line will be built above the existing SRT mainline, while the contract includes construction of stations at Bang Khen, Thung Song, Hong Lak Si, Kan Kheda, Don Muang and Rangsit. Project completion was anticipated 48 months after the contract was signed.

Bang Sue will also be served by the Purple Line, which is under construction and according to MRTA was 83% complete at the end of December. The 23.5km standard-gauge line from Bang Yai to Bang Sue is a Japanese-funded public-private partnership (PPP). A joint venture of Thai construction company, Ch Karchang, and Tokyo Construction

is building the Bang Sue - Phra Nang Klao section, while Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction won a Baht 15.3bn contract for the 11km, eight-station section from Phra Nang Klao to Klong Bangphai. The line will be operated by MRTA when it opens in 2017, with Japan Transport Engineering Company (J-Trec), a subsidiary of JR East, supplying 63 metro cars, and Marubeni and Toshiba securing the E&M contract in November 2013 which includes a 10-year maintenance agreement.

Orange Line

Another standard-gauge metro project is the 37.5km Orange Line, which is divided into three phases: Taling Chan - Thailand Culture Centre (TCC) (17.5km), TCC - Bang Kapi (9km), and Bang Kapi - Min Buri (11km). MRTA approved construction of the TCC - Min Buri section of the line, which has 29 stations, 22 of which will be underground, in June 2013. MRTA is currently awaiting cabinet approval for the scheme before completing the environmental assessment and appointing a project consultant. The project is estimated to cost Baht 85.4bn minus land acquisition and MRTA hopes to open the line in 2019.

However, construction is complete on extensions to the existing BTS Skytrain lines. A 3km western extension of the Silom Line from Talat Phlu to Bang Wa opened on December 5, which was preceded by the 1km Wong Wian Yai - Pho Nimit, and 1.5km Pho Nimit - Talat Phlu extensions which opened on January 12 and February 14 2013 respectively. The 14.5km line is now carrying an extra 70,000 passengers per day, with a further six-station extension from Bang Wa to Taling Chan due to open in 2019.

Several extensions are also planned for the Sukhumvit Line, including a 12.6km project south from Bearing to Samutprakran which will carry an extra 57,000 passengers per day and will be served by a fleet of 40 three-car trains. CH Karchang Public Company secured the Baht 13.7bn civil works contract in March 2012 and the subsequent trackwork contract in 2013. It appointed Alstom in a e14m contract in September 2013 to design and construct trackwork and a third-rail electrification system for the project, which will be completed by late 2015.

In addition a 7.5km, four-station extension from Samutprakan to Bang Pooyai, which will extend the line to the coast, is planned along with a 28km extension from the northern terminus at Mo Chit to Lam Lukka. The project is divided into three phases with tenders underway for the 11.4km, 11-station section from Mo Chit to Saphan Mai, and the 7.5km, four-station section from Saphan Mai to Khoo Khut.

Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) operates the elevated Skytrain network under a concession granted by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Skytrain carries 800,000 passengers per day, reporting an 8% increase in 2013, and its director and chief operating officer Mr Surapong Laoha-Unya, says the company hopes to operate the extended service in order to "provide convenience to passengers."

Laoha-Unya told IRJ that BTS, in addition to exploring international opportunities (see panel), is also hopeful of winning other operations contracts in Bangkok, with the government set to implement many of the lines as PPP operating concessions.

"In 2013 we became the first infrastructure operator in Thailand to go public through an initial public offering (IPO)," Laoha-Unya says. "This raised $US 2bn and enabled us to pay off our debts leaving us with $US 1bn in free capital. We now have the money to invest further in our business."

Among BTS' target projects is the proposed Pink Line, a 38km monorail which will link the terminus of the Orange Line at Mini Buri, west to Khae Rai, serving 30 stations located in neighbourhoods in the north of the city, and intersecting with BTS' existing Sukhumvit Line service at Wongwian. Tenders were due to be announced for the project in the third quarter of 2013. However, while it is described as a "priority project" tendering is not now expected to commence until the second quarter of 2014 at the very earliest following the political unrest.

"The projects proposed for Bangkok will require up to Baht 100bn of private investment," Laoha-Unya says. "We have $US 1bn, but the rest of the funds will come from the market, whether these are loans from the banks or other means. However, we do not envisage securing this funding as being a problem."

Feeder lines

The Pink Line is one of four monorail projects which are described as "feeder lines" by MRTA. The Yellow Line is a 30.4km link from Ratchada to Samrong with 20 stations with the potential to add three extra stops. The project is divided into two parts - from Latphrao to Phattanakan, and Klong Kalanton to Samrong with a depot set to be located at Hua Mark. Tenders for the project were due to be announced by late 2013. However, like the Pink Line, this is now delayed and not expected to take place until mid-2014. The project has an estimated completion date of 2019.

The other proposed monorail projects are the 26km, 21 station north-south Grey Line and the 9.5km, nine-station Light Blue line. However, these are not considered priorities by the government which said last year that to proceed, the Bangkok city government would have to identify its own source of funding. The city government responded by stating that it was exploring possibilities for the projects.

With the city's network appearing to take shape, a universal smart card ticketing system is being rolled out. The Rabbit Card is now available for use on the BTS Skytrain services and the Blue Line, with passengers able to join a Carrot Rewards loyalty programme which offers points that users can exchange for gifts and privileges. Patrons can also use the card for small purchases of goods and services.

Bangkok Smartcard System Co, a subsidiary of BTS Holdings, with Bangkok Bank as its financial partner, launched the scheme in June 2013. Vix ERG, Australia, designed the micropayments clearing house processing service, which is based on the company's Mass system, which is also in use in Beijing. Around 1.5 million subscribers are now using Rabbit cards which are accepted at 1500 locations across Bangkok.

Laoha-Unya says the smart card is a great addition to the Bangkok network and avoids the need to have individual tickets for individual lines which can decrease the ease and attractiveness of rail travel, which will only improve as more projects get up and running.

At present it is too early to say how the current political crisis will affect the long-term rollout of these projects. Laoha-Unya, like Sukmanop, expects there to be delays of at least "a few months" but that in the long-term interests of the country and Bangkok's economic development, he feels the projects must and will get built.

While clouds of uncertainty currently sit over the future of the Thai government, it is difficult to see any new administration, particularly one that prides itself on eliminating corruption as the opposition voices claim their preferred governing solution will, backing away from a programme that has the potential to benefit so many people across all regions of Bangkok.

However, history has taught us to always expect the unexpected in Bangkok. For that reason no-one is counting their chickens just yet.

BTS eyes international opportunities

AS well as playing a major role in future mass transit operations in Bangkok, Laoha-Unya says BTS is keen to explore opportunities in overseas markets. Specifically he says other Asian cities interest the company following its IPO which has given it the capital, and desire, to expand its business.

"Our policy is to provide advice services as a junior partner with a local company," Laoha-Unya says. "We may invest, but only as a smaller partner as part of a project. We recognise that there are a lot of potential opportunities in India, although we are not ready to enter this market yet. There are also opportunities in China and Vietnam."

Indonesia is another potential target, and BTS is already working with Jakarta Monorail to support the development and operation of the monorail network (IRJ February p22). Laoha-Unya says he expects the project's feasibility study to be completed this year, after which he expects "discussions to take place on how we can proceed further."

"It is an opportunity for BTS," Laoha-Unya says. "We have more than 14 years of experience and we are in a position to share that. However, we do not want to take a high-risk with these prospective investments. Thailand remains our number one priority, particularly Bangkok with the amount of work proposed here."