In the north-eastern city of Khon Kaen, an ambitious plan to build Thailand's first urban rail network outside of Bangkok will be realized. Work on a 26-kilometer light rail system that will run through the city will begin in 2024.
The long-awaited public transportation system, which was first proposed eight years ago, fits into the province's larger Smart City Development Programme, which includes more than 100 projects. The light rail system will also connect to the mega high-speed railway that runs from China to Laos and Thailand.
The 21 billion baht (S$813 million) project is more than just a traffic-relief measure. It also establishes the concept of provinces having the autonomy to pursue large-scale projects without relying on Bangkok's central government to spearhead such initiatives.
"Typically, people rely on the central government to plan and lead a project like this. But here in Khon Kaen, we saw the city's pain points," said Mr. Suradech Taweesaengsakulthai, 57, president and CEO of transport and manufacturing firm Cho Thavee.
Mr. Suradech is a founding member of the Khon Kaen Think Tank (KKTT), one of the local groups that assisted in securing project approval from the central government.
The national government has a tight grip on the federal purse strings in Thailand's highly centralized governing system, and resources are typically concentrated in the capital Bangkok or cities targeted for development.
According to public administration lecturer Jackrit Kamudhamas of Khon Kaen University, the successful approval and start of the light rail project in a secondary province like Khon Kaen represents a decentralisation of developmental processes and resource distribution.
"It is much more than a transportation system. "It represents the fight against unequal resource distribution between capital and regional cities," Mr. Jackrit explained.
With a population of nearly two million people, Khon Kaen is not your typical foreign tourist destination.
However, it has rapidly evolved from an industrial area to a regional hub for financial, educational, and administrative activities, and it is now plagued by traffic congestion and urban density issues similar to Bangkok.
It is also the location of Khon Kaen University, which has over 40,000 students.
Bangkok has built an extensive grid of mass rapid transit nodes that spans more than 200 kilometers, with several extensions in the works. To date, however, it is the only Thai city with such mass transit.
Instead of waiting for funds and resources to be distributed to their city, residents such as Mr Suradech decided it was time to act on their own, even if it meant putting up their own money.
The KKTT was founded by a group of 20 local business owners, academics, and community leaders.
"We have funds. So we agreed to each contribute 10 million baht. If that could improve Khon Kaen, that was a bet we were willing to take," Mr Suradech said, adding that the company was founded in 2015 with a registered capital of 200 million baht to build the city's infrastructure.
Part of the plan, dubbed the Khon Kaen Model, is to establish a light rail network as a backbone for real estate and city development. There are also plans to create jobs and a rail industry where the knowledge and technology can be sold.
The large-scale project finally cleared all government red tape in 2018 thanks to a private-public partnership with the Khon Kaen Transit System (KKTS), a public company founded by the five Khon Kaen municipalities along the tram line.
The light rail line will be owned and operated by the KKTS. This is similar to how the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's existing Krungthep Thanakom company, a state enterprise and investment arm, handles public transportation projects.
While the project is not funded by the central government, it does require appropriate government endorsement and support. Representatives such as Mr. Suradech have spent the last eight years seeking approval from a variety of local, regional, and national agencies.
The group had faced skepticism, with some believing that their efforts would be interpreted as an attempt to destabilize the central government, which was led at the time by the military.
"We informed the government, at the time the NCPO (National Council for Peace and Order), that this project was unique. We simply need your approval; we will find the funds and manage everything ourselves. So this was crucial," Mr. Suradech explained.
Thailand was led by the now-defunct NCPO from 2014 to 2019. The light rail project went through several bodies, including the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Transport, before receiving final approval from the Prime Minister's Office in 2018.
The project is expected to have an internal rate of return - a measure of profitability - of more than 9%, allowing the KKTS to borrow funds to support it.
There are also ambitious plans to list the project on the Thai Stock Exchange, where funds raised will be used to maintain the network and fund future provincial projects.
Trams built with the assistance of Mr. Suradech's company Cho Thavee are currently being tested ahead of the start of construction on the light rail project in early 2024.
Rather than subverting the central government, the most important aspect, according to Mr Suradech, is to disrupt the governing processes and allow provinces to embark on initiatives that will benefit their cities.
According to a Bank of Thailand study, the potential benefits of the Khon Kaen light rail network include an increase in jobs and 1.5 percent economic growth.
Other provinces have begun their own versions of the KKTS, and the government announced in January 2022 that it would expedite rail projects in six provinces, including Khon Kaen.
Despite the fact that the light rail project has had its detractors since its inception, Mr. Suradech says he has always seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
"People used to tease us a lot before this, but I'm sure people will want to do what we've done once Khon Kaen starts piling works and has its opening ceremony," he said.
Mr Jackrit, a long-time resident of Khon Kaen, admits that he is amazed at how far the project has come, calling its success in gaining approvals from all parties, including the central government, "historic".
"They paved the way in terms of thinking outside the box - having a locally driven billion-baht project was unthinkable prior to this," Mr. Jackrit said.