Hopewell firm on Thai mass transit project

HOPEWELL Holdings has no intention of abandoning its proposed US$3.2 billion mass transit project in Bangkok.

Mr Stewart Elliott, Hopewell's executive director, was emphatic after reports in Bangkok claimed the company would seek additional investors from Hongkong.

''I sat in on all the press conferences and talks we had with Thailand's Transport Minister, Mr Vinai Sompong, on Friday and nothing of the sort was mentioned,'' he said yesterday.

''Our meeting went very well and, despite press speculation to the contrary, was very friendly,'' he said.

Mr Elliott said that both Hopewell and the Thai authorities wanted to see the project started as ''soon as possible''.

He said Hopewell expected to meet with Thai government officials and the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) on April 20. ''We hope to begin drilling three to six weeks later,'' he said.

It is understood that problems over land leasing costs, which are not part of the concession agreement, have been finalised and that the SRT-appointed consultants are making progress on the mammoth proposal outlined by Hopewell.

Mr Elliott said: ''From our point of view everything is going as well as can be expected.'' Like Hongkong's Mass Transit Railway, the Bangkok project depends on property profits for its viability. By running railways and roads above ground in the fashion of a multilayered cake the scheme will provide space for shops and offices under large sections of the transport network.

Under the Hopewell plan hotels, convention centres and shopping complexes will be built on adjacent sites.

Unlike Hongkong's Mass Transit Railway, whose construction was overseen by a powerful quasi-governmental corporation, Hopewell is a private company and has to negotiate with one section of the Thai Government. That section is the SRT, which falls under the auspices of the transport ministry, which is providing its railway land for Hopewell's use.

But relations are said to have soured in recent months, particularly on the Thai side, which claims Hopewell has been deliberately slowing the project up because it was unable to provide detailed plans of the project.

Hopewell was signed up for the project during the free-wheeling days of the government of former prime minister Mr Chatichai Choonhavan.

The SRT has been demanding for months to see completed plans for the whole project which Hopewell says is impossible for a project of its size.

About 10 days ago Hopewell's chairman, Mr Gordon Wu, was said to have reacted in ''horror'' to SRT demands that Hopewell put up large amounts of money for two sites required for pre-casting work outside the concession area.

The SRT demanded 681 million baht (about HK$205 million) for a plot of land, for example, near Bangsue in northern Bangkok. Of the 681 million baht, 331 million baht was for rent, 250 million baht for compensation, and 100 million baht for SRT's loss of opportunity; an additional bank guarantee of 96 million baht was also reportedly demanded.

Mr Wu was reported to have said, at the time, ''I interpret this as a sign they do not want the project to go ahead.''