THAILAND: State Railway of Thailand launched a twice-daily passenger service between Bangkok and the Cambodian border on July 1. The service is aimed at Thai and foreign tourists and people visiting the Rong Kleua Market.
The service is expected to promote cross-border trade with Cambodia, with significant growth in ridership expected once the service becomes established.
The new train service between Bangkok and Ban Klong Luk border station in Sa Kaeo province that was launched on July 1 is a major step for Thailand to boost people-to-people ties with its immediate neighbour to the east.
There are four trips a day -- two in each direction -- with the first train leaving Bangkok at 5.55am. Ban Klong Luk in Aranyaprathet is just six kilometres away from Poipet, Cambodia, where the train service linking the border town to the capital, Phnom Penh, was recently revived. The journey from Bangkok to Ban Klong Luk takes about five hours, but the trip from Poipet to Phnom Penh takes around 12.
The complete plan envisages a seamless train service from Bangkok to the Cambodian capital, via Battambang, Cambodia's second-largest city which has economic significance. Cambodia reopened the Poi Pet-Battambang route last year.
Historically, railway services between the two neighbours -- first launched in the 1940s -- have always been inconsistent.
Trains used to run from Battambang to Aranyaprathet, until they were terminated in 1974 because of the country's civil war. Most of the tracks were dilapidated, if not destroyed, by the war, but partial domestic service resumed in the 1990s.
However, the trains completely stopped running after a series of attacks by the Khmer Rouge, who kidnapped foreign travellers for ransom. Later, Cambodia chose to develop the track that links Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in the southwest.
Outgoing Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith deserves praise for his vision. Earlier this year, he said the train link between the two countries should be revived as the tracks are already connected. "The connection could facilitate cross-border trade and boost tourism," he said.
The launch of the Bangkok-Ban Klong Luk train service followed a symbolic ride on April 22 by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his counterpart Hun Sen, with whom he crossed the border to Poi Pet. Both leaders want train services between the two countries to resume.
Some academics cautioned that the train service, particularly that for the Poi Pet-Phnom Penh route, may not be competitive compared to other modes of land transport like buses and vans, which take less time. Now there are buses and vans from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap, which are popular among locals as well as tourists.
Songrit Pongern, an expert on the Mekong region, said the resumption of services is a symbolic gesture, with "no trade or tourism benefits, at least in the near future".
He reasoned that it takes too long to get to the border from Phnom Penh by train -- 12 hours, as opposed to seven hours by buses and/or vans -- and said that there will better opportunities when China completes the tracks to Vietnam, as the loop will be more extensive.
But there is no reason to wait. We must understand that the rail system, if it is efficient, is worth the investment, thanks to the fact that it is a mass-transit system. It is cheaper, safer and more reliable with a lower carbon footprint.
The big upside to taking the train is that fares are more predictable compared to buses and/or vans, whose fares may fluctuate depending on fuel prices.
At this stage, the service will only be for tourists who want to experience an exotic journey, but it would be best to make it workable means of travel for locals and to boost people-to-people relations.
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