The most constant quality of any Thai governments is its ability to always announce huge development projects for Bangkok. Maybe because most of them do not last more than two years on average, and they know that their promises have little chance of becoming reality. For example, if we follow the dozen of various announcements regarding public transport in Bangkok over the last 15 years, the city underground and Skytrain network should today surpass in density and length the Paris or London mass transit system with its 1,000 km of tracks and hundreds of stations. London Transport or Paris RATP, however, doesn’t need to worry – they are still larger today than Bangkok’s mass transit system with its three lines.
This year, a small miracle is to be expected for Bangkok commuters – the airport express link, delayed already by three years, is expected to be operational in April or in August, depending on the project’s technological reliability. Hopefully in 2011 – already two years behind schedule- six new stations should help to reduce traffic jams with the expansion of the line between On Nut and Bang Na along Sukhumvit Road.
The current Abhisit government just released its new framework for transport development, once more a “priority.” Among them is the construction of 100 km of commuter rail and undergrounds in the city, the creation of a high-speed train network, and an airport link between Suvarnabhumi International Airport and the old Don Muang facility.
In fact, the government also looked again at the future role of the old airport. Since Suvarnabhumi Airport started to take a more concrete shape, all Thai governments have scratched their heads, trying to find a new role for Don Muang. After closing it, plans were to turn the old airport into an international low-cost charter airport, but under pressure, mostly from Thai Airways, only domestic flights were finally allowed. Another government took power and with it a new option was mulled out for Don Muang. The over 90-year-old airport would be turned into a center for air transport maintenance and training, as well as a base for private jets.
This is the turn of the Abhisit government, which released its views on Don Muang last week. The airport would welcome again international flights but would be handed over to the private sector in order to make the best use of the existing infrastructure. “The two Bangkok international airports may be allowed to compete with each other in offering aviation services both for domestic and international flights. However, Suvarnabhumi would get priority in air traffic,” explained the Prime Minister. Airports Management Company, AOT, would create a subsidiary to manage Don Muang.
If Abhisit’s decision translates into reality, it could only bring benefits to Thailand, as it would help to strengthen Thailand’s position as a transportation hub in southeast Asia. Again, using the example of turning Don Muang into an airport for budget carriers, this might also be the right solution to compete against Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, as it would free capacity at Suvarnabhumi and provide an airport for at least 20 million passengers a year, with minimum work to be carried out.
Debates in Thailand over the last five years already jeopardized Thailand’s transport future. The best example of this was the decision of AirAsia to stay at Suvarnabhumi. Supporting strongly the conversion of Don Muang into a low-cost base for Bangkok, AirAsia finally refused to move there once the airport reopened, as splitting its domestic and international operations would have been too costly. Meanwhile in Kuala Lumpur, the airport’s authorities are making way for a 30-million-passenger, low-cost terminal at KLIA, as AirAsia continues to grow by 15 percent per year, while Suvarnabhumi still struggles to start its terminal’s expansion.