How State Railway under fire for costly train station name change sign

The State Railway of Thailand (SRT) faces public outrage for commissioning a private company to build a 1 million USD sign to change the name of its central station. An investigation is underway and suspicious dealings have been questioned.

The Grand Station from Google Map

On 29 December 2022, the last day before Thailand entered a year-end holiday, Unique Engineering and Construction Public Company Limited (UNIQ) issued a circular letter to the director and manager of the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET).

Among other things, it stated that the company signed a contract with SRT to replace the existing Bang Sue Grand Station name sign with a new one bearing the name Krung Thep Aphiwat, as bestowed by King Vajiralongkorn in September 2022.

What sparked public anger was the cost of the name-changing project - 33,169,726.39 million baht, or about 1 million USD, arguably too high a price for a country still suffering the economic costs of the pandemic.

In response to growing criticism from netizens and public figures, Transportation Minister Saksiam Chidchob told the media that an investigation has been ordered. It is expected to be concluded in one week.

With the investigation still underway, whistleblowers and critics have already pointed out some suspicious aspects of the deal.

Grandiose labelling

Commisioned in 2021, Bang Sue Grand Station was built to replace the centuries-old, iconic Krung Thep Grand Station at Hua Lamphong. Its 2,475 rai (about 3.96 million sq m) space surpasses Malaysias KL Sentral in size, making it the largest station in Thailand and ASEAN. 

Krung Thep Grand Station, also known as Hua Lamphong.

As of last year, the station was ready to accept 136,000 passengers per day, a throughput that will increase to 624,000 per day in the next decade. Linked with transportation infrastructure, the station is a hub for trains, metro light rail, and airport commuter transport.

Measuring 180 m in width and 520 m in length, the station is gigantic. On its front dome, a huge BANG SUE GRAND STATION” sign can be seen. This is where the controversial replacement sign is to be installed.

The Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT), a renowned civil society watchdog, posted the SRT concession document on its Facebook page stating that UNIQ had been given a concession for a sign-replacement construction deal withspecific” concession terms.

Under the TOR, the company will set up new SRT logos along with the stations new name in Thai and English on the east and west sides of the dome. MCOTs Inside Thailand news show made public a document allegedly issued by the concession committee, listing project expenditure as follows:

  • engineering structure for 6,228,521 THB,
  • architecture process for 24,394,841.39 THB,
  • design process, for 918,700.89 THB 
  • the station's glass wallsreplacement during the construction for 1,627,662 THB.

In Thailand, when the government sector hands out a concession to the private sector, bidding is required in order to assure competition to obtain the cheapest cost and highest quality. In some cases, the state can specify the number of bidders or designate a particular company as the concessionaire. 

In this specific” case, SRT gave UNIQ the contract without any bidding taking place. This is the core problem that later led to public criticism.

On 3 January 2023, SRT posted on its public relation Facebook page, explaining in detail why the construction costs were so high. It noted that the construction included creating 48 Thai letters, 62 English letters, and 2 SRT logos, as well as a new base for the letters to rest on and a new illumination system.

The SRT also emphasised that construction process was a difficult job requiring special safety measures because workers had to lift a structure as heavy as 7 tonnes and hang it 28 metres above the ground.

As for why there was no bidding, SRT justified the use of the specific concession method by stating that the construction has to be done as fast as possible. 

SRT ended by affirming that the project was being done “for the benefit of the state and the people … entirely in accordance with public sector procurement procedures.”

Tip of the iceberg

On Tuesday (3 January), Sarawut Saranwong, president of the State Railway Workers Union of Thailand (SRUT) submitted a letter to the SRT governor demanding that a probe to take place for the sake of transparency.

Sarawut found that there was no immediate need for the name-changing project that would justify skipping the bidding process. He also questioned whether UNIQ’s joint venture with Italian-Thai Development PLC in the Red Line train construction project was a sufficient reason for it to receive the concession.

On Inside Thailand the next morning, Sarawut, who works under SRT and knew about the deal before it was made public, said that he still does not understand how the concession went the way it did.

Prapas Chongsa-nguan, former SRT governor said in Voice TV's Wake Up Thailand news show that the specific concession has to be made on the ground that the project has to be initiated within one week. It is still questionable why SRT struck the deal in December 2022, two months after receiving the bestowed name.

Surachate Pravinvongvuth, a Move Forward Party (MFP) lawmaker known for his scrutiny of many transportation-related mega-projects, reminded the public that the SRT deal is but a tiny portion of the deals pending over the next couple of months.

He said the Ministry of Transport plans to push through another 9 mega-projects at a cost of hundreds of billions of baht in January-February cabinet meetings. The timeline comes just before the current administration’s term ends in late March.

The MFP lawmaker noted that the Ministry has been rushing projects this way since the 2014 coup.  He added that the rapid push for projects without paying heed to cost efficiency could be a burden to state budgets in a long term.

Transport Minister, Saksiam is an MP from Bhumjaithai Party, a major partner in the government coalition,  It has been absorbing MPs from other parties and gaining influence. Anutin Charnvirakul, the Public Health Minister, is the party’s leader.

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