Southern Thailand; Rail link for Trang, Satun, Phuket aired

UntitledFrom Bangkok Post: 14 Sep 2015

Transport planners are looking into a new rail route linking Trang with Satun and Phuket provinces as part of efforts to boost tourism to the South. The Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning will speed up a feasibility study of the proposed route, said director Pheerapol Thawornsupacharoen. The rail line would pass through three provinces known for their seaside and marine tourism attractions, and is part of the southern transport infrastructure development plan. European tourists are among the targets, though planners say it will have local economic benefits as well. Mr Pheerapol said a separate feasibility study is also underway for a proposed “romantic route” linking Ranong, Phangnga, Phuket, Krabi and Trang by road, which targets key popular destinations for couples.

He said his office would work with the Rural Roads Department, the Highways Department and the State Railway of Thailand on the projects. The new routes were devised after the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking asked the government to commission new routes along the southern coasts. Mr Pheerapol’s office found the transport routes could be integrated into the land transport development plan for the southern provinces, and could also benefit transport of goods, particularly local products. The Trang-Phuket rail line study will be sped up as it will enable the cheaper transport of goods by freight train, the director said.

It could also help secure Thailand’s position as the region’s leading marine tourism destination, he added. The Transport Ministry has previously studied a possible East-West rail corridor connecting Surat Thani on the Gulf of Thailand sea coast with Phangnga and Phuket on the Andaman coast. The link aims to cut transport prices for tourists travelling to both coasts. Mr Pheerapol said a better choice of transport connections could make the tourism industries on both coasts more competitive.

In 2012, 24 million tourists visited the southern coastal provinces, with around 80% of them travelling to popular attractions in Surat Thani, Phuket, Phangnga and Krabi. Mr Pheerapol said the “romantic route” project had the potential to pull in couples from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Agencies are focusing on proposals to build a light railway from Phangnga’s Tha Noon district to Phuket’s Tha Chalong intersection, via Phuket International Airport, he said. The 60km-long light rail route will also join the planned East-West rail corridor in Phangnga, he added.

Mr Pheerapol said his office has been in talks with the Highways Department over constructing the light railway from a flyover on top of the median strip of Phuket roads. This would avoid expropriating privately-owned land. It was yet to be decided whether the local administration organisation of Phuket or the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand would be responsible for building the light rail route, he said. The construction budget has not yet been disclosed. Mr Pheerapol said he expected a decision to be made this week on the project, which will be open to private sector investment under a public-private partnership (PPPs).

By the end of the year, details of the project will be finalised and sent to the Office of the Commission for the Management of Land Traffic, he said. The commission will consider the design and decide what kind of PPP investment will be suitable. Mr Pheerapol said the Transport Ministry was also looking at the feasibility of upgrading Phuket’s transit system.

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Thai govt bans foreigner ‘visa runs’ to borders

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Immigration police at land border crossings have now stopped giving entry stamps to foreigners who exit and immediately return to Thailand to extend their stay for 15-30 days on visa runs. “The order is not new. Originally, officers were authorised to consider giving permits. But in this current situation of heightened security, all officers have to step up restrictions,” said an official at the Immigration Bureau. Many foreigners regularly go on visa runs to Cambodia and return through the Sa Kaeo immigration checkpoint, he said.

“Some foreigners do not even go themselves, but get illegal networks to obtain the entry stamp for them,” the source said, adding the government has cracked down on the border-run syndicates, prompting them to change tactics. Now the networks provide a one-day tour for foreigners to the Cambodian town of Poi Pet, so they can re-enter Thailand afterwards with permission to stay for another 15-30 days. Law enforcement on these types of activities will intensify, said the source. From now on, foreigners who are re- entering Thailand will be screened rigorously. They will need to provide information about their accommodation, tour company or other details to confirm they are in the country to travel as tourists.

The measure is likely to block scores of foreigners from re-entering Thailand through Sa Kaeo. Those wishing to enter Thailand from Cambodia will have to go to Phnom Penh to apply for a visa at the Thai embassy. The police investigation into the bomb blasts at Erawan shrine on Aug 17 and the Sathon pier on Aug 18 discovered immigration police were bribed by an illegal network linked to the perpetrators. The issue prompted national police chief Pol Gen Somyot Poompunmuang to call a meeting with the heads of immigration checkpoints on Sept 7, and was followed by a reshuffle in immigration police staff. “The immigration police are coming under intense scrutiny,” said another high-ranking official at the bureau.

Some army-backed officers were moved to head up the checkpoints in the recent reshuffle. Pol Gen Somyot is now wrestling to oust bureau commissioner Pol Lt Gen Sakda Chuenpakdee, who allegedly failed to follow the government order to transfer officers linked to Rohingya traffickers out of his jurisdiction. Pol Gen Somyot also handed out a report exposing the unlawful practices of immigration police under the command of Pol Gen Sakda, such as allegedly accepting 300-500 baht bribes from foreigners cutting the queue to apply for visas at Suvarnabhumi airport, the source said.

The practice is said to make about two million baht in profit for the immigration police every day. “Pol Gen Somyot aims to destroy the treasure trove plundered by the bureau,” the source said.