The Thai government has committed to building a land bridge on the Kra Isthmus between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. There is potential for such a land bridge to serve certain types of bulk and container handling operations.
The idea of ââbuilding a canal on the Thai Isthmus of Kra goes back over two centuries. The aim is to offer a shorter sea route between Shanghai and Europe. Nowadays, ships carrying east-west trade from China, South Korea, Taiwan or Japan to destinations in India, the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Atlantic coast of North America travel either via the Strait of Malacca or Strait of Selat Sunda. A shipping canal built through the isthmus of Kra could shorten the journey to several destination ports by up to two days.
It is possible to build both natural gas and oil pipelines across the Kra isthmus, along with oil storage and natural gas storage facilities at either end. Experience in North America with oil and natural gas transportation has shown that pipelines are usually the cheaper alternative. While there is potential for the development of container handling operations across the Kra Isthmus, the choice of land transportation technology will determine the future cost competitiveness of such operations. Even in North America, waterway transport is associated with lower transport costs per container when more than 100 TEU are carried.
Land bridge technology
While Thailand State Railways currently operates meter-gauge railroad lines, a larger gauge would allow double-stacked containers to be operated along the proposed double-track railway line. The Hyperloop is a possible alternative technology that claims to be able to move containers quickly and at competitive costs between start and destination. Another option would be to hire rail technology researchers to investigate four-lane technology where super-wide rail cars three TEU wide and four TEU long could each carry two to three levels of containers, creating 12 to 18 foot boxes each Automobile.
While Thailand’s meter-gauge rail lines have served the country’s needs well, wider gauge offers benefits, including the double-stacked operation of containers. In North American operations, container trains with forward and medium-haul locomotives can pull up to 150 freight wagons, including the extended-length container wagons that can each transport two levels (or four TEU). One such operation suggests up to 600 40-foot containers per train. A future extreme concept railway technology with parallel tracks, each built on meter gauge, with the width of each super-wide car extending across the parallel tracks.
Each of the super-wide railroad cars would couple via central couplings. The middle track on which locomotives run would be meter gauge, with each of the outer tracks on which super wide cars run also being meter gauge. According to the North American standard train practice, locomotives would be distributed over each container train. This arrangement could move up to 900 40-foot containers for each 50-car section of the train, with a four-car train powered by four locomotive groups moving up to 3,600 containers. The university’s railroad research departments would need to do more research to make the concept workable.
Image courtesy of the author
Trans-Kra container handling
While there is significant volume of container handling in Singapore and nearby Tejung Pelepas, future sea container trade is expected to increase over the next two to three decades. The future expansion of international container shipping provides a basis for exploring the possibility of Trans-Kra container handling. There are already plans to develop a deep-sea port in Chumphon on the Gulf of Thailand and an accompanying deep-sea port in Ranong on the Andaman Sea, which could become the eastern terminus for future mega-container ships from 28,000 to 35,000 TEU.
Smaller container ships from South China, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan could arrive in a future port of Chumphon and reload containers onto a future Trans-Kra land bridge at a comparatively low cost per container. The containers would arrive in Ranong to be reloaded onto mega container ships that would head to numerous Mediterranean and European destinations and possibly the US east coast. Future research could determine the extent to which increased sea container transport would improve the competitiveness of Trans-Kra container handling.
A credible business case could be made for rerouting bulk cargo such as oil and natural gas over a future Kra land bridge. The future forecast growth of international container shipping suggests that the responsible authorities should at least consider the possibility of container handling over a future Kra land bridge. Sustained long-term future growth in container shipping could bring the transshipment terminals in Singapore and Tejung Pelepas to maximum operating capacity. A future need to expand the container handling capacities at other regional terminals forms the basis for the assessment of the future Asian container handling via the Kra land bridge.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.