The on again, off again, ‘white elephant’ light rail project is ‘on’ again after a visit from the new transport minister with the PM last week.
The Minister of Transport, Suriya Juangroongruangkit, has made a commitment to bring ‘trams’ to the Phuket province to alleviate traffic woes. But he says the project will have to wait for about two more years until the ongoing road expansion construction is completed.
He emphasised the urgent need for a mass transportation system in Phuket province to enhance convenience for its residents and visitors (even though the new light rail route doesn’t go anyway near the island’s most popular west coast beaches).
The Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand has been actively studying the development of a mass transportation system for the island, connecting Phuket Airport, via Thepkasattri Road, Phuket Town, Chao Fah East and then to the the Chalong Circle and Intersection, a total distance of 58.5 kilometres. The current budget has not been finalised.
Currently, Phuket City grapples with traffic congestion, especially along Thepkasattri Road from Thalang through to Koh Kaew, due to road expansion projects and a general rise in local car registrations. Consequently, plans for a light railway, or tram, will be put on hold for the next two years to ensure the completion of these crucial road upgrades as well as an alternative expressway, which is planned to run parallel with Thepkasattri Road, from the airport area to Kathu.
Mr. Suriya also touched upon the importance of affordable transport fares for local residents. Local residential use will be a crucial part of the Light Rail project, given the current routing links local residential areas and not areas visited by tourists.
How the new light rail service will actually aid the island’s tourism or problems with taxi fare-gouging have not been addressed by the transport minister.
Initially, fares for the tram are set at 20 Baht for the entire line, from Muang Mai Station (near the Phuket Airport) to Chalong Station. For travellers starting their journey at the airport, a surcharge of 30-50 baht may apply in the future, depending on inflation rates.
The fares will have to compete with a local resident who can currently travel point to point with their current car or motorcycle but will be comparing that to 1) a trip to the nearest light rail station 2) a trip on the light rail and 3) another trip from the light rail station to their destination – a lot slower, more expensive and inconvenient.
There will also be major disruption along the busiest route in Phuket – Thepkasattri Road – during construction, including finding a way through the busy Heroine’s Monument roundabout.
In recent years the initial light rail, with overhead electrification, has evolved into a driverless electric bus system. The final design has not been revealed by the transport minister.