Cablegate: Train Accident Reveals Union Woes and May Lead to Rail

DE RUEHBK #2767/01 3020938
R 290938Z OCT 09



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary and Comment: Seven people were killed when an
overnight Bangkok-bound express train derailed earlier this month.
Citing the train crash as an example of the poor state of trains in
Thailand, unionized railway workers in the deep South suspended
local services, claiming that their action was in the interest of
passenger safety. The government, however, saw the crash as
evidence of a moribund rail system and called for a renewed effort
to restructure the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). A subsequent
confrontation between police and union members in Southern
Thailand's Hat Yai rail hub was met by widespread public and media
condemnation and threats by SRT management to fire the workers
involved. The efforts of the once-powerful rail workers union to
have its political voice heard is weakened by the failure of
unionists to gain support from the mainstream political parties.
End Summary and Comment.

Train Derails, Kills Seven

2. (U) Seven individuals, including one young child, were killed
when a train derailed early in the morning of October 5th.
Eighty-some individuals were injured when the overnight
Bangkok-bound express train travelling in excess of 100 kilometers
an hour (more than 63 miles per hour) jumped the tracks in heavy
rain. The incident happened about eight miles south of Hua Hin, a
popular tourist getaway and the location of Wang Klai Kang Won
Palace, where Thailand's king spends much of his time. The accident
was one of the deadliest in Thai railway history. Damage and lost
revenue is estimated to be in excess of 100 million baht
(approximately 3 million USD).

3. (U) A fact finding committee found that the derailment was mainly
caused by human error. The committee concluded that the driver
dozed off after taking antihistamines and fever relief medication
while on duty and violated train driving regulations. SRT fired the
driver and cut salaries of other staff following the determination
that the train's engineer and train attendant had failed to help
monitor signals to ensure the safety of the train. The government
seized on the report as reason to press forward with a restructuring
of the entire railways system. Prime Minister Abhisit told the press
on October 21 that he wanted to overhaul the SRT as soon as

Labor Union Struggles

4. (U) The SRT labor union leader, Sawit Kaewwan, said that it was
unfair to blame the train accident on the driver alone. A 1998
cabinet resolution limiting the SRT's recruitment had led to staff
shortages, he said, and this led to staff members being forced to
work every day and to often work double shifts. He and the train
driver placed additional blame on a faulty alarm system.

5. (SBU) Sawit's unionists are already reeling from a poor public
image and the fact that the union was cut out of the only new rail
project in the last decade: the soon-to-open high speed Bangkok
airport link. With no new SRT hiring allowed under the 1998 cabinet
resolution, the airport rail link was given special exemption to
hire 500 non-union affiliated workers for the showcase, high-tech

6. (SBU) Comment: The rail workers labor union has historically been
one of the most active of the state enterprise unions (private
sector unions are almost non-existent). Current "Yellow Shirt"
political leader Somsak Kosaisook was a former rail workers union
head. Somsak put the Thai labor movement in opposition to then
Prime Minister Thaksin because of Thaksin's efforts to privatize the
state enterprises. Now with the Democrat-led government also
opposing union positions, the labor movement in Thailand is
struggling to find any home in the current political landscape. End

Move to Rail Service Restructure Revitalized

7. (SBU) Following the crash, the movement to overhaul Thailand's
train system was once again brought to the fore. The SRT is one of
the worst performing state enterprises with annual losses of
billions of baht. In June, a plan to restructure the SRT was
approved by the Cabinet. Under the plan, the SRT would be
responsible for investment in the rail system and depots (i.e.,
train stations or freight storehouses/warehouses) and the government
would provide financial support for operations. In addition, two
companies, wholly owned by the SRT, would be created. One would
operate rolling stock and the other would manage land owned by the
agency. The rolling stock company would be divided into three
units, one to operate the airport rail link, one to operate
passenger transportation, and the last to operate cargo

BANGKOK 00002767 002 OF 002

transportation. Recognizing that a main goal of the restructuring
was to free rail operations from union-controlled labor, labor
leaders led a work stoppage shortly after the Cabinet decision. The
plan was then shelved. A labor advocate told Econoff that the union
is against the restructuring plan as the union is convinced that the
plan is not meant to solve the SRT's financial troubles but rather
to divert government benefits to companies with political

Southern Rail Service Suspension Gains Little Support
--------------------------------------------- --------

8. (U) On October 16, railway workers suspended local train service
in southern Thailand, in some cases leaving passengers stranded.
The head of the local SRT labor union cited concerns about passenger
safety as the reason for the temporary stop in service. He told the
press that the train derailment in Hua Hin was an example of the
poor state of the trains, many of which have malfunctioning safety
systems and locomotives in poor condition. (NOTE: The union was
careful to say that the interruption of service was not a strike,
but a "temporary suspension of service" aimed at ensuring that the
trains passed maintenance checks before resuming service.
Thailand's State Enterprise Labor Relations Act (SELRA) prohibits
strikes by state enterprise workers. End Note.) The suspension was
also aimed at unseating SRT governor Yutthana. Workers burned an
effigy of him at the Hat Yai station, saying that he had failed to
run the railway system efficiently. They also pointed to his
indictment earlier this year for involvement in a suspicious leasing
agreement, signed without any bids, as proof of his unsuitability.

9. (U) According to polls, the public is not supportive of the
strike. The press reported lost revenues from tourism, shipment
delays, increased shipment costs, and decreased income for taxi and
tuk-tuk drivers who typically transport rail passengers from the
train station to their final destination. The union has gained the
support of a few groups, but no political party has come to its
defense. A southern chapter of the People's Alliance for Democracy
(PAD) announced its support as did the Campaign for Popular
Democracy and the People's Network Coordination Center. The State
Enterprise Labor Relations Confederation (SERC), the umbrella group
of all of the state enterprise unions, lent its support to the
workers' anti-privatization stance. The SRT union, however, could
not even get SERC backing for the suspension of service.

Police Attempt to Restore Service

10. (U) On October 26, in an attempt to restore service to the three
southernmost provinces, more than 100 armed railway police and
volunteers took possession of one train that was being held at Hat
Yai station by union members. Amidst yelling from union members,
but no physical resistance, the driver successfully drove the train
out of the station. On October 27, a similar attempt was made to
drive a train out of the Hat Yai station, which nearly resulted in a
collision. The told the press that the union members had used the
stationary train to block his route and had tampered with a switch
that could have derailed his train. An hour-long confrontation
followed between railway workers and police. Following the
incident, SRT management halted negotiations with the union and
announced plans to fire key union members involved for severe

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