As delays in projects go, being held up by almost 350 years is a big one. The idea of building a shipping canal across Thailand’s Kra Isthmus, reducing the usual trade route for ships between the Indian and Pacific oceans by more than 1,200km, was first mooted in 1677. However, despite the proposal resurfacing in the 20th century, fears over the environmental impact and the potential for it to divide the country have held it back. Now, the Korea Railroad Research Institute (KRRI) has put forward the idea of a ‘dry canal’ to carry ships across the south of Thailand, from Kra Buri to Chumpon Bay in the Gulf of Thailand, bypassing the Malacca Strait.
“[The] rail canal is an innovative system for transportation,” says KRRI director of public and international affairs Dr. Myung Sagong
KRRI has worked on rail canal technology for three years and says the idea is cheaper than a conventional canal, and does not require any land separation.
“First of all, [a] rail canal is cost-effective compared with a conventional canal and is environmentally friendly,” Sagong says.
“[A] rail canal doesn’t need deep digging of mountain areas. In case of [the] Kra Isthmus, [a] conventional canal divides the country into two parts; however [the] rail canal avoids the division so that the country can stay united.”
The project would costs $4.8bn for 57km of track, and approximately $3.4bn for 51km on the Chumphon route – although Sagong does add that the final figures would depend on the route and its capacity.
In any case, the cost could be 60% of that for a conventional canal, says KRRI, and the finished route would reduce transit time by up to 50% and travel distance by 2,000km – or around two days of shipping.
“A the waterway canal separates the south region from the main land, which is not acceptable to Thai citizens,” adds Sagong. “The rail canal is the good candidate to solve the problem of division, on the way to [creating] a leading country of maritime logistics in the ASEAN [region].”
Tanit Sorat, chairman of V-Serve Logistics, a Thai-owned integrated logistics service provider, backs the project, saying it could be cheaper than dredging a conventional canal – although added the caveat that he was unsure if rail could carry ships exceeding 100,000 dead weight tonnes.
Chula Sukmanop, director-general of Thailand’s marine department, has questioned the financial viability of the project, saying “if it’s very expensive, investment in the rail canal construction won’t be worth it”.
And Rattapoohm Parichatprecha, director of the Centre of Excellence for Road and Railway Innovation, believes the new trade route would “help Thailand leap out of its middle-income country trap”.
According to Sagong, the core technologies are challenging, particularly in terms of location and terrain, but are not insurmountable.
“The multi-axle freight cars to support and carry a large vessel of 100,000 tonnes are the core technology,” he says. “The ropeway traction system to lift the vessel to the land track is another, and [these] are innovative enough to be challenging.
“The Kra Isthmus is a mountainous area which requires many water gates for the vessels to climb. However, a rail traction system enables the vessel to climb the slope up to 25%, which is also challenging.
“Experts ask if the rail canal [can be] true, technically. However, large vessels are constructed on land and launched to water by traction bogies on rail in Korean shipbuilding industries. A rail canal is the inverse process of launching.”
An uncertain future
Despite reported interest from China in working with Thailand to build a traditional canal, KRRI and Sagong are keen to push ahead with a prototype of the rail canal.
“The next step is to construct a prototype freight car and evaluate the performance,” says Sagong.
From there, KRRI will develop a small-scale test bed, running over a short distance near the preferred route of the canal. The performance and feasibility of the project will then be analysed, although Sagong adds that raising funds for commercial activities is beyond KRRI’s scope.
“[During the prototyping phase] its concrete economic, social and technical feasibility will be studied and a decision will be made on whether constructing the rail canal is possible or not.”
KRRI is also planning to sign a memorandum of understanding with Naresuan University, a government-sponsored institution in Thailand. This will allow the sharing of ideas around high-speed rail, urban transit and any other rail technologies.
* This is a version of an article that first appeared on www.ship-technology.com