The mixed-gauge mess of Thailand’s railways

Construction News

The mixed-gauge mess of Thailand’s railways

By James Clark

The Mixed-Gauge Mess Of Thailand’s Railways

Thailand is in the process of expanding and duplicating railway lines across the country. While this is a much-needed improvement to the railway network, the choice of railway gauge will create further problems and cost more in the future.

Thailand’s railways operate on a metre-gauge. There are several gauges used around the world, but most modern railways have settled on using standard-gauge (1,435 mm). This is the gauge used by the Laos-China Railway, and through to China, Central Asia, and Europe.

Like most of Southeast Asia’s railways, Thailand’s railways run a single track, so trains use the same track in both directions Trains have to wait at passing loops to let opposing trains pass. If one train is late, it causes delays throughout the rest of the day.

Train waiting at passing loop for a train to pass.

Thailand is now converting these lines to double tracks, so trains can run in both directions without being held up at passing loops. The problem is that there are lines that would have made sense to convert to the standard gauge. Instead, a network is being built that will have mixed gauges.

This problem of a mixed-gauge network was brought up by the president of the Engineering Institute of Thailand in 2015. The recommendation was to stick to a specific width or expect “sky-high costs”.

The State Railways of Thailand (SRT) have been hemorrhaging baht for decades, and in November 2021 it was reported that “its balance sheet shows liabilities of about 160 billion baht, when its actual liability stands at 600 billion baht”. That’s nearly 18 billion USD! The SRT plan to offset this debt by with 600b baht in land projects over 30 years.

Early in 2022, I visited some of the cities where the double-tracking of the metre-gauge is taking place. These cities are also planning for a standard-gauge high-speed railway. After visiting these sites I’m not surprised that the SRT is losing so much money, and what they are doing now is going to make their debt crisis even worse.

The railways of Thailand are divided into regional groups, so this article will break down the problems within each region.