THAI OFFICIALS TO SEEK APPROPRIATION FOR IMPROVEMENTS AT DEEP-SEA PORT

THAI OFFICIALS TO SEEK APPROPRIATION FOR IMPROVEMENTS AT DEEP-SEA PORT

Thailand's new government is moving to improve port facilities that are intended to take the strain off congested Bangkok.

As much as 5 billion baht ($210 million) will be sought from the fiscal 1996 budget for the deep-sea port of Laem Chabang, about 80 miles southeast of the capital.The funding is part of a 10-year plan by the Eastern Seaboard Development Committee to add 10 container berths, as well as upgrade road and rail links with Bangkok and into adjacent Cambodia.

A planning session last week chaired by Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa also directed the State Railway of Thailand to double-track its line between Laem Chabang and Bangkok.

The port's five docks have annual capacity equivalent to between 500,000 and 600,000 20-foot containers (TEUs). Plans call for capacity to rise to 2 million TEUs at 15 docks by the end of the decade.

Laem Chabang is touted as the answer to chronic congestion and corruption at Klong Toey, the inland containerport that serves Bangkok.

Two of the Laem Chabang terminals are privately operated, a move to break union strongholds.

The government's Harbor Department was instructed to hire a private firm to study three more projects. One would improve maritime links between Laem Chabang and three neighboring provinces.

The others involve dredging the channel around Nok Island, in the shipping lane between Si Chang Island and Chonburi on the mainland, so it is navigable by oil tankers up to 200,000 deadweight tons; and dredging the Tachin River in Samut Songkhram province to make it navigable to larger ships.

Deputy Transport Minister Chaipak Siriwat said bids to name consultants to oversee the next stage of the port's development would be called next month. A decision is promised by the end of the year.

Timetables have a way of slipping in Thailand, however.

Work on the Si Chang terminal began in January 1994. The original go-ahead was given in 1989, but the project was stalled by bureaucratic infighting.

Privately owned Si Chang will be capable of accommodating bulk vessels up to 100,000 dwt. and containerships of around 60,000 dwt. It will enable many larger vessels currently required to dock in Singapore to unload directly in Thailand.

Laem Chabang itself is forecasting volume of 500,000 TEUs this year and 1 million in 1996. Last year's tally was 376,731, compared with just 2,406 in 1991, before its expansion.

Despite its steady rise in throughput, and official efforts to shift business away from Klong Toey, Bangkok remains the first choice for many shippers and lines. This in part is because commerce is concentrated in the capital. Land links to and from Laem Chabang are inadequate.

Klong Toey processed 1.39 million TEUs last year, up from 1.27 million in 1993. Government policy was to cap volume at 1 million TEUs starting last year, then whittle it down progressively.

Hopes of promoting Laem Chabang took a hit last month when the so-called Global Alliance of four big carriers was reported to have postponed indefinitely its plans to call there. The alliance had announced it would send mother vessels of up to 3,000-TEU capacity there starting next year.

The alliance groups the American President Lines unit of American President Cos. of Oakland, Calif.; Orient Overseas Container Line Ltd. of Hong Kong; Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. of Japan; and Nedlloyd Lines BV, part of Royal Nedlloyd Group of the Netherlands.