PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AND TRAFFIC IN THAILAND: TRAINS, TUK TUKS, SKYTRAIN AND MRT AND BANGKOK GRIDLOCK

TRANSPORTATION IN THAILAND

Where topography allows it, Thailand has an extensive network of roads and railroads. Some rapid transit exists in Bangkok but its done reign in the gridlocked traffic there. Tourism and improved economic development led Bangkok to become a major regional air hub.

In the 18th century Bangkok residents got around on foot, by canal or in human-drawn rickshaws known to Thais as rot chek (“Chinese vehicles”). During the early 20th century three wheeled pedicabs or samlors became common. After World War II, Japanese two-stroke engines were added and the tuk tuk was born.

Until recently rivers and canals served as the primary means of transport for many Thais. In the past, rivers and canals were the most convenient channels of transportation for people and goods. They are also an important source of water for farming. All ancient Thai cities were located near water sources and when cities were expanded inland, people dug up canals, mainly to get water for their farm and use them as transportation channels. They were designed specifically for people to live on or to use in making a living. During the reign of King Rama V, the number of rafts along the canals and rivers was substantial. Now only a few remain in provinces like Uthai Thani. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

Describing the 16th century Thai capital of Ayutthaya, the historian David Wyatt wrote: “[The] princes and officials constructed homes along the network of canals radiating eastward from the palace and Chinese and Indian merchants built their shops and warehouses along the river to the south.... [Outside the main walls of the city,]... the Chams attached to the army; there are a group of Malays who manned naval vessels, clustered around an Islamic house of worship; north of the city, [there was] a settlement of Roman Catholics descended from Portuguese and Japanese Christians.

Until Bangkok’s canals started to be filled to pave the way for roads in the 1950s, water transportation was the main travelling mode for people and traders who directly sold from boats. Traders normally set up riverside stalls and shop houses. When the transport shifted to land, rows of shops sprouted along the roads instead of the waterways. Today, roads throughout Thailand, even deep in the countryside, are lined with wooden stalls and shop houses selling local produce, handmade items and packaged goods. [Op. Cit, Wattana Boonjub]

Although ferries continued to ply the Chao Phraya in Bangkok, the boat was no longer the main mode of transportation by the 1980s. At that time Bangkok had about 900,000 registered motor vehicles and a new superhighway system was partially completed. By the late 1980s massive traffic jams, noise, and air pollution had become part of everyday life. Most of the canals in the "Venice of the East" had been replaced with roads; this replacement was in part causing the city to sink.

In the remote area of Thailand often there are no roads, only walking paths. The people that live here describe distance between villages and towns, not in miles or kilometers, but in days or hours of travel. Distance that look close on a map can be deceptively far when you considered the passes traversed, the valleys crossed and the long ascents, switchbacks and descents in between.

Klongs

Bangkok’s canals are known as klongs. Bangkok used to be laced with them. They followed streets, ducked under superstructures and were crossed by bridges. By one estimate a third of the city’s residents in the mid 19th century lived in stilted or floating houses along the canals or the river. Until a few decades ago they were so were so crowded and full of boats that policeman were used to direct traffic. Over the years many of Bangkok’s klongs have been paved over to widen streets and make room for houses and other buildings. Many of remaining klongs are foul and dirty. Some are filled with black oily water. Others are stagnant pools covered by smelly green scum and filled with garbage.

But not all the klongs are a mess. Ones visited by tourists have floating hyacinths and lotus flowers, small houses with garden and fluttering laundry. In some places you can still find monks floating in the water in inner tubes, women in broad woven hats and sarongs using sampans to buy groceries and, floating shopkeepers and deliverymen. In recent years there has been a campaign to free the paved over klongs to attract tourists to places they otherwise wouldn’t go and provide better drainage.

Khlong Mon in Thornburi features weathered teak homes and orchards and interspersed with modern houses, crumbling shacks and the odd temple. Saffron-robed monks can be seen among and stretches of morning glory or water hyacinth. Small boat's travel up and down river. People scrub clothes, take naps and throws scraps to fish, smiling and waving at passers by. Boats leave every 30 minutes from the Tha Tian Pier behind Wat Pro . The fare is minimal. Khlong Bangkok Noi is wider and bolder – more river than canal. It is lined with factories, temples and navy installations as well as homes. Where it meets the Chao Phraya river is the Royal Barges National Museum, where the elaborately gilded barges used in solemn Royal ceremonies can be seen up close.

Urban Transportation in Thailand

Public transportation in Bangkok for a long time was woefully inadequate. There were no subways or trams, only diesel-spewing buses. The buses were often full when they arrived at bus stops. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to stop. The government began studying an underground subway for Bangkok in the 1950s and funding it in the 1970s. The projects were delayed and postponed because of difficulties presented by the fact that the water table in Bangkok is so high and the city is prone flooding.

Traffic jams are a problem in Bangkok. Motorcycle taxis are good if the traffic is bad but dangerous. Tuk tuks are good for short runs and taxis are good for long runs. If you can get three or four people together you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by taking taxis around. Thai cities are very confusing. Many small streets are not marked. Taxi and tuk tuk drivers respond to landmarks not street numbers. Taxis often have Buddhist charms and strings of jasmine flowers hanging from their rearview mirrors and tiny speakers play leuk thing music.

If time is of essence, the traffic is bad, you are by yourself, and you are prepared for a frightening ride then you might want to take a motorcycle taxi. Orange vested Thai motorcycle taxi drivers hang out at major intersections in Bangkok and other larger cities. Prices are generally fixed so you can ask about the fare after you have told them your destination; then hop on the back and hang on for dear life. Thailand motorcycle taxis are the fastest and consequently the most dangerous mode of transportation in Thailand. They can maneuver quickly through grid-lock traffic. They are also the cheapest, with fares ranging from 5 to 30 baht, depending on distance. Make sure to wear a helmet.

Rapid Transportation in Thailand

Bangkok has mass transit but other Thai cities don't have subways, trams or anything like that. Some people use the regular trains like commuter trains. Mass transit in Bangkok consists of three services: 1) the “Skytrain,” 2) the MRT subway, and 3) the Airport Link. The Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS), or skytrain, and the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), which is the subway, are electric train systems in central Bangkok and the perimeter, whereas the electric train linking Suvarnabhumi Airport (Airport Link) is a special project to facilitate those traveling to and from Suvarnabhumi Airport, using highspeed electric trains.

In the early 2000s Bangkok finally opened a mass transportation system. The Skytain covers are relatively limited area of Bangkok. Locals complain that it doesn’t go to most of the places they want to go but fortunately for visitors it does cover many of the downtown tourist destinations frequented by foreign tourists. The new subway opened three years after the Skytrain. There are only two transfer points between the two systems which are viewed as rivals rather than partners. The subway is is more ordinary than the Skytrain, lacks its views, but it clean and efficient. Several stations have walkways that lead directly to popular places such as department stores, commercial areas, and various attractions. The direction signs and announcements on both electric trains and at their stations are in Thai and English.

Bangkok didn’t have a subway system for a long time partly the city was built on a swamp and the water table is very high, making construction and maintenance of an underground subway difficult. The State Railway of Thailand operates train services between Hua Lam Phong train station in central Bangkok and various points around the city, including stations near Don Mung Airport. Trams operate around Rattanakosin Isle near the Grand Palace area but otherwise Bangkok once extensive tram system was shut down in 1968.

BTS Skytrain

BTS Skytrain is Bangkok’s $1.6 billion elevated mass transit railway. It opened in Bangkok in 2002, seven years behind schedule. It was supposed to be finished before Thailand hosted the Asian Games in 1998. But that didn't happen. The Asian economic crisis in 1997-98 slowed down its construction. When it finally did open some commuters were quite happy to have their travel time reduced from more than an hour to 10 minutes.

The BTS SkyTrain is Asia’s only mass transit system owned by a private company and one of the few mass transit system in the world to make at it as a profit-making venture. It embraces two lines and 23.5 kilometers of track. The sleek three-car electric trains are air conditioned and operated by computers. Drivers only open and close the door. The only time they drive is when there is an emeregncy. The system is operated by Bangkok Mass Transit Systems (BTSC). Initially locals complained the 10 baht tickets (about 25 cents) were too steep for short rides but ridership increased to more than 400,000 a day after the price of gasoline jumped in 2005.

SkyTrain operates 12 meters above the ground and offers fine views of the city. Built by the German company Siemens, it is modern and quiet and takes passengers across the central part of the city in less than 30 minutes at an average speed of 35 kilometers per hour and a top speed of 80 kilometers per hour. The Skytrain is operated by Bangkok Mass Transit System (BMTS) and has suffered no major accidents.

MRT Subway

The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), or Bangkok Metro, is the first subway in Thailand. At the present time it operates one route, the Chaloem Ratchamongkhon Route, with 18 stations. Built at a cost of $2.5 billion and inaugurated by Thailand’s King Bhumibol with great fanfare in July 2004, it consists of a single line: the 21-kilometer Blue Line between terminal stations at Bang Sue and Hua Lumphong, the primary train station for journeys to destinations outside Bangkok. One reason it took so long for Bangkok to get an underground subway was because the city’s water table is so high (near ground level and far above the subway trains) and the city is prone to flooding. Before the project could be undertaken a system for pumping out the groundwater had to be developed.

The Bangkok subway is owned b the Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA) and run by the Bangkok Metro Co Ltd. (BMCL). Initially it was criticized for being too expensive. After it opened it averaged 120,000 riders a day. After fares were lowed in January 2005 about 180,000 riders a day began riding it. The inaugural line will be extended in phases totaling 27 kilometers, and two future lines, totaling 67 kilometers, are planned.

In January 2005, a subway train with no passengers crashed into a packed train at the Cultural Centre Station in central Bangkok during the morning rush hour. The empty train began rolling down the tracks out control when it was being moved to a shed for maintenance work. A train that was going to tow the cars to the shed failed to connect to some stranded cars, instead pushed them down a slope into a tunnel where they collided with a stationary trains filled with about 700 passengers, About 200 people were injured, six critically, with about 100 needing hospitalization. The others mostly walked away from the scene, the accident was blamed on the driver of the empty train who misunderstood instructions from the control center. The subway line was ordered closed and reopened after about a week.

Bangkok Traffic

The number of vehicles in Bangkok — cars, trucks, buses, vans and tuks tuks—has skyrocketed over the years, from just 600,000 in 1980 to 6.8 million now, and this does not include the millions of motorcycles and motorscooters. Adam Janofsky of the The Pulitzer Center wrote: “In 2007, Bangkok had both 5.6 million registered vehicles and 5.6 million residents, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. As a percentage of the population, the number of vehicles in Bangkok completely eclipses traffic levels in many other Asian metropolises: There are almost twice as many vehicles per person in Bangkok than in Tokyo or Seoul, and about eight times as many as Shanghai. And on top of that, the number of cars in the city continues to soar over 6 percent each year, said Soithip Trisuddhi, director of the Office of Transportation and Traffic Policy and Planning. [Source: Adam Janofsky, The Pulitzer Center, August 14, 2012]

The roads in Bangkok, which are not all that different than they were in the 1960s, have been unable to keep up with the influx of vehicles. Street capacity has increased at a rate of 1.5 percent a year while vehicles have increased ar 12 percent a year. Not surprisingly Bangkok suffers some of the world's traffic gridlock. Only Cairo, São Paulo or Jakarta are as bad. Sometimes people sit in the same places for hours and seven mile back-up are not unheard of. Busy streets are sometimes tied up by wayward elephants. There are even major ties up in the back alleys.

Motorist often leave their homes at 4:00am to beat the morning rush hour. The evening rush hour often lasts from until around 11:00pm at night. A crosstown journey can take as long as overland trip to Cambodia. The average Bangkok driver spends an equivalent of 44 days a year in traffic. The delays are worth hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity.

In an effort to improve the traffic situation, new bridges and expressways have been built, a mass transit train system was opened and the Chao Phraya River and canals have been better utilized for transportation purposes. Pedestrian only zones have been set up on the weekends on Silom Road and near the river. Other shopping areas have expressed an interest in hopping on the pedestrian-only bandwagon. There has also been suggestions of implementing car or parking taxes to keep cars out of the city center.

Traffic Jams and Gridlock in Bangkok

Time magazine has called Bangkok “The Capital of Gridlock.” Time correspondent Hannah Beach wrote: “As a Bangkok traffic policeman, Phichet Wisetchoke carries the usual tools of his trade: a baton, a sheaf of tickets, a mask to repel smog--and a tiny umbilical-cord clamp. Traffic in Thailand's capital snarls with such ferocity that hundreds of women over the past few years have been forced to give birth in cars. So the Royal Thai Traffic Police has trained 145 of its officers in basic midwifery. Phichet, who carries bundles of gauze and an aspirator to clear newborns' noses, has delivered nine babies in traffic--two in February alone. "I wanted to be a policeman because I thought it would be fun to catch bad guys," says Phichet, who has no children of his own. "But this is Bangkok, and the traffic is so bad, I have an even better job: bringing babies into the world." [Source: Hannah Beach, Time, February 8, 2008]

And what a gridlocked world that is. Bangkok trumps Mexico City, Los Angeles and other megacities in its capacity to come to a standstill. Police don't consider traffic bad until a car is stationary for at least an hour. Really bad is two hours. Some 5.7 million vehicles inch through Thailand's capital: trucks, tractors, buses, motorcycles, sedans, auto rickshaws and the occasional elephant. As an increasing number of Thais announce their arrival in the middle class with a gleaming new car, more than 2,000 vehicles are added to Bangkok's roads each day. Yet only 4.4 percent of Bangkok's total area is paved, compared with 20 percent of many U.S. cities. Bangkok's city planners have tried to alleviate traffic with a public-rail network, but the subway and elevated Skytrain are sorely inadequate. The Skytrain, for instance, covers only downtown Bangkok and doesn't take commuters to the city center; an extension originally scheduled to open in 2002 still hasn't been finished. Each day, only 700,000 trips are made on Bangkok's rail system, compared with 6.5 million on public buses and 10 million in private vehicles. "Even if we build 100 more roads, it still won't be nearly enough," says Pharnu Kerdlarpphon, deputy commissioner of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police. "We need a complete overhaul of Bangkok's transportation system, but there's no sign of that happening anytime soon."

Reasons for Traffic Jams and Gridlock in Bangkok

Time correspondent Hannah Beach wrote: “How did this metropolitan area of 10 million grind to a halt? Just a few decades ago, the Thai capital was a tropical outpost crisscrossed by canals and surrounded by rice paddies. By the 1970s, the city began to boom, in part because of an influx of American soldiers seeking R. and R. from the Vietnam War. Even back in 1972, with only 243,000 cars on the streets, Bangkok had trouble coping with all the new Buicks and Toyotas. As a stopgap solution, local planners paved over city canals. The result is a haphazard road network on which the average car spends the equivalent of nearly 45 days a year stuck in traffic. Even worse, the declining number of canals, which once served as reservoirs for rain, means that substantial portions of the city flood during the five-month-long wet season. The rising water invariably short-circuits traffic lights, turning intersections into free-for-alls.[Source: Hannah Beach, Time, February 8, 2008]

For traffic to really improve, Bangkok will have to rely on a political bureaucracy that is, if anything, even more clogged than the city's streets. Each one of the seven governments in power over the past 15 years has come in promising to overhaul Bangkok's mass-transit system with dedicated bus lanes, railway extensions and park-and-ride facilities. Then, invariably, another group of leaders takes over and scraps the predecessors' plans. After the last coup, in 2006, the ruling military junta spent a year whittling down the previous government's $15 billion public-transportation plan, arguing that it was too costly. The generals approved a more modest rail-network expansion last October. Elections two months later ushered in a new Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, who unveiled one more rail proposal in February. A former Bangkok governor who knows the city's traffic woes firsthand, Samak is calling for nine rail lines to be built within four years, at a cost of $16 billion.

That could be another white elephant. There's also the matter of real ones. A few weeks ago, I was stuck in a taxi in a traffic jam that seemed so normal that I didn't even bother to see what was delaying us. Finally I glanced up. In front of us, wandering the wrong way through three lanes of stalled cars and trucks was a disconsolate pachyderm, its trunk held high to avoid breathing exhaust fumes. Bringing elephants to Bangkok is illegal. But the beast's handler was willing to risk a fine if it meant coaxing a few bananas and baht out of tourists. And what's a little more traffic in a city where gridlock is a way of life?

Living with Traffic Jams and Gridlock in Bangkok

Time correspondent Hannah Beach wrote: “The omnipresent traffic has changed the way Bangkok residents live--and wards off some foreign investors. To avoid the worst congestion, kids are often bundled into cars before dawn while they're still asleep. They arrive at school sometimes hours before the bell rings and eat breakfast and brush their teeth, all while parked meters from their school. Vendors tempt idled commuters with everything from doughnuts and cell-phone-card refills to garlands of jasmine--sometimes used as offerings to the gods of traffic. More than $1 billion in productivity is lost every year to traffic jams. No surprise, then, that while reporting this story, I was late by nearly an hour to every interview because of traffic. [Source: Hannah Beach, Time, February 8, 2008]

Late arrivals aside, most locals are remarkably sanguine about the gridlock. Road rage rarely erupts, perhaps because of a Buddhist equanimity that helps keep tempers in check. Packs of stray dogs have learned to nap between stopped cars on roadways that were ambitiously designed to accommodate 90 km/h (56 m.p.h.) travel. (The average pace during the morning rush hour is 15 km/h, or 9 m.p.h.) The only group that has admitted to feeling the pressure is traffic policemen. Last December, 1,200 of the city's 4,000 traffic cops participated in a therapy program called Let's Come Together and Laugh to Help Our Mental and Physical Health. Stress-relieving treatments included various smiling exercises, from teeth-baring grins to out-and-out guffaws. "Most other countries have fancy equipment to help with traffic," says deputy police commissioner Pharnu. "All we have is laughter."

Describing a traffic policeman at work, Noel Grove wrote in National Geographic: "He crouches, then retreats with mincing footwork as he coaxes vehicles toward him with fluid arm gestures, part of an artful ballet he uses to keep traffic rolling." Explaining why he often smiles when he works, one traffic policeman told Grove, "It relieves the tension, makes everybody less serious, and it's fun...And traffic seems to move faster." Once, a policeman , who had had it with directing traffic at one of Bangkok's busiest intersections, purposely turned all the lights green and danced off, leaving the traffic in a hopeless snarl.

Tuk Tuks

Tuk tuks are small three-wheel motorized vehicles that look more something you'd expect to see in an amusement park than on a busy city street. Similar to motorized rickshaws in India, they have a driver in front and can squeeze two passengers in the back. The generally don't have a meter so passengers need to agree on a price before setting off. Tuk tuks are also sometimes called samlors (although a samlor can also be a three-wheeled pedicab). They are quite fun but a little dangerous. Fares range from 30 to 150 baht. In Bangkok the price should never be above 200 baht. You can hail a tuk tuk by holding your hand down at your waist and pointing your fingers down and raising them.

Tuk tuks have a canvas or metal cover, open sides, two rows of seats (one for the driver in front, one for two passengers in the back). Reportedly named after the noise their engine makes while idling, they are about 12 feet long and weigh about 1,500 pounds and are sometimes decorated with lights, plastic ornaments, mirrors and tinsel.

Tuk tuks are used in Bangkok, other Thai cities, towns, villages and resorts. They have been described as "nothing less than a golf cart on steroids,” zipping “through the Bangkok traffic with the freedom of a nippy, nimble chariot." They are also used elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Chunkier, yellow-and-black tuk tuk-like vehicles also widely used in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Brazil, Morocco and Egypt have also shown interest in introducing the vehicles to their cities.

During the early 20th century three wheeled pedicabs or samlors became common. After World War II, Japanese two-stroke engines were added and the tuk tuk was born. Tuk tuks often belch out a lot of blue smoke and are major contributors to the air pollution problem in Thai cities. The noise they make was described by Lonely Planet as like a “power saw gone berserk.” Some new tuk tuks have smokeless engines. Electric ones have been introduced.

A typical tuk tuk driver is from the poor Northeast, He works from 6:00am to 9:00pm and earns enough 5 baht to 60 baht fares to bring home $430 a month, enough to care for his wife and himself and raise three children. Many Bangkokians don’t like tuks tuks and some have lobbied that they be banned. In the 1990s Bangkok supposedly forbade the production of new tuk tuks but people said that after ban went into effect they kept seeing plenty of new tuk tuks on the street,

While tuk tuks are generally more expensive than air conditioned taxis, they are often more easy to find and certainly can be more fun to ride. Short tuk tuk trips should cost between 30 and 50 baht regardless of how many passengers you can pile on board. In Bangkok tuk tuk drivers are notorious for taking tourists to shopping areas and leaving them stranded there. Tuk tuk drivers are also known for taking foreigners on circuitous routes and overcharging them. Particularly in Bangkok, tuk tuk drivers are frequently involved in scams targeting unsuspecting visitors. Beware of tuk tuk drivers who erroneously inform you that a tourist attraction is closed or that they will take you sightseeing for free. Such tuk tuk drivers receive commissions to take unsuspecting visitors to fraudulent gem shops or other places of business whose sole purpose is to rip-off visitors.

Tuk Tuk Factory

In different parts of Thailand tuk tuks take on various designs that are quite different from the traditional tuk tuks found in Bangkok. These include motorbikes with covered sidecars, which are the primary public taxis in Ao Nang Beach, Krabi. Often, Thais will refer to any small transport vehicle as a tuk tuk regardless of its design, provided the vehicle has three wheels or is powered by a small motorbike.

The D'Mes Industrial Corporation in Amnart Cahrown (near the Lao border), a $1.25 million plant with 150 craftsmen, had produced about 20,000 tuk tuks over 20 years as of the early 2000s and continued to churn them out at rate of about 100 a month. The vehicles sold for around $1,200 in the mid 1990s sell and between $1,500 and $1,750 in the early 2000s. Quieter, less-polluting Japanese autotaxis are more expensive.

The D'Mes Industrial Corporation supplies 80 percent of tuk tuks for Laos and has also shipped tuk tuks to Germany, Jordan and Sudan. The factory also churns out mini-trucks, mini-fire engines and min mail vans. The owner of the factory told Reuter, "Villagers used to queue up at my factory waiting to buy tuk tuks. Some even helped my workers to finish their orders quickly to get them on the road."

Songtaews

Songtaews (songthaews, song thaeos and other similar spellings) are pickup trucks with benches in the covered flatbed portion of the truck. They are used to carry passengers in poor remote areas where no other forms of transportation are available and are used in cities. Some run regular routes at scheduled times, but most leave on a when full basis and pick up and drop off passengers along the road. Passengers sit in the back on uncomfortable benches lined up on the sides. Usually there is a compartment over the back to protect passengers from rain and wind. Songtaews can be very crowded, and uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.

On going to school by songtaew, Nattawud Daoruang wrote: “I walk down this lane to catch the bus to school every day. The bus stops outside the 7-Eleven convenience store. It usually costs 4 baht but sometimes for students it is 3 baht. After about 500 metres, I change from the bus to a songtaew because I can't go to school by one bus, it's not on the way for one bus. Songtaew is Thai for two rows because it has two rows to sit on at the back. This songtaew will turn left at the clock tower next to the City Hall and go straight pass my school. Songtaews are usually full so some people have to stand at the back. I like to stand at the back too because it's exciting and easy to get off. [Source: Nattawud Daoruang Thailand Life ] clock tower to my school and you can see the songtaew stopping in front of my school.

Railroads and Trains in Thailand

Railroads are operated under the auspices of the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). In 2005 the system totaled an estimated 4,071 kilometers of narrow-gauge (1.000-meter gauge) track. The system currently has some 270 diesel locomotives and nearly 250 diesel railcars or multiple-unit cars. According to figures provided for 2002, 55.7 million passenger journeys occurred, and the rail system hauled 9.9 million tons of freight. Freight traffic is considered an important part of Thailand’s domestic container transport to and from seaport and inland terminals. [Source: Library of Congress, 2007]

The railway system operated by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) comprises five main routes that reach every corner of the country. 1) Northern route From Hua Lamphong Central Station to Chiang Mai Station, Chiang Mai; and Sawankhalok Station, Sukhothai. 2) Northeastern route From Hua Lamphong Central Station to Ubon Ratchathani Station, Ubon Ratchathani; Nong Khai Station, Nong Khai; and Chaturat Station, Chaiyaphum. 3) Eastern route From Hua Lamphong Central Station to Aranyaprathet Station, Sa Kaeo; and Map Ta Phut Station, Rayong. 4) Western route From Thon Buri Station to Nam Tok Station, Kanchanaburi; and Suphan Buri Station, Suphan Buri. 5) Southern route From Thon Buri Station to Su-ngai Kolok Station, Narathiwat; Khiri Rat Nikhom Station, Surat Thani; Kantang Station, Trang; Nakhon Si Thammarat Station, Nakhon Si Thammarat; Hat Yai Junction, Songkhla; and Padang Besar Station in Malaysia

Apart from the regular train service, which takes passengers to neighboring countries – such as from Hat Yai to Padang Besar in Malaysia, or from Nong Khai, across the Friendship Bridge to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – there is another train system to neighboring countries with special, luxurious compartments: the Orient Express, known also by its full name, the Eastern & Oriental Express, is the most pleasurable and comfortable way to travel, in personal sleepers complete with washrooms. The service is available on three main routes, namely Bangkok – Chiang Mai, Bangkok-Vientiane, and Bangkok-Singapore.

Thailand’s first railway was completed in 1900 with British help. There are plans to build an inter-province bullet train in Thailand. In August 2005, Thailand announced plans to build a highspeed railway between Bangkok and the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. The 250-kilometers railway is expected to halve the travel time to between the capital and the province to one and a half hours.

Service and Classes on Thai Trains

By western standards the trains in Thailand are very cheap. An average ride in the most comfortable class goes for about $3.50 per 100 miles, or $25 between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. There are night trains to between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and between Bangkok and Malaysia which leave in the afternoon and arrive the next morning. There are good sides and bad sides to the service. For example when the train breaks down and the power goes off to the air conditioners, train peroneal try to keep passengers happy by giving out free bottles of water and fresh papaya and pineapple.

Most trains used by tourists have three classes: first class (two or four beds in a compartment with air conditioning); second class (couchettes with stacked sleeping berths for four or six people, with fans), and third class seats. Second class tickets usually cost about twice as much as third class tickets, and first class tickets are double those in second class. Third class should be avoided. The seats are uncomfortable and the cars are often hot and crowded.

Some trains have dining cars with reasonably good food and plenty of beer. First class is quite plush, featuring private cabins with twin sleeping arrangements and air conditioning. It is only available on select routes at prices are often higher than flying. Second class prices on Thai trains are equivalent to first class bus tickets, both in price and in comfort, though the train has fold down beds and it’s easier to get up and stretch your legs on the train than on a bus. The lower class cars fill up in November when farmers come to the cities looking for work and April when they return home.

Bridge over the River Kwai and the Thai-Burma Death Railway

The Bridge over the River Kwai is world famous because of the 1957 David Lean film by the same name but otherwise is quite ordinary-looking, with little to set it apart from a run-of-the-mill railway bridge. The bridge spans the Maenam Khwae Yai which is a branch of Maenam Mae Klong. During the Japanese occupation of Thailand in World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army brought the iron bridge from Java. It was then resembled by Allied Prisoners of War (POW) under Japanese supervision. The bridge was part of a strategic railway route to Myanmar in which the Japanese aimed to secure supplies with which to conquer other western Asian countries. The railway was 415 kilometers long (with about 303 kilometers in Thailand and about 112 kilometers in Burma) and passed through the Three Pagoda Pass in Sangkhlaburi District, the northern most part of Kanchanaburi province.

Construction started on September 16, 1942 at Nong Pladuk, and was completed 17 months later on December 25, 1943 when the rails were joined 37 kilometers south of Three Pagoda’s Pass. Because the terrain was so mountainous, construction crews had to build several high bridges and make deep cuts into mountains and passes. “Hellfire Pass” was the name POWs gave to he largest of the mountain cuttings. More than a kilometers long, it was created in 12 weeks using hammers, picks, steel tap drills, dynamite, and shovels by 1,000 Australian and British POWs working 12 to 18 hour shifts. The name of the pass described the way it looked a at night when the workers labored by torchlight. By the time they were finished 70 percent of the POW crew was dead. A Japanese brothel train inaugurated the line when it opened. The railway was in use for 20 months before the Allies closed by bombing he bridge.

It is estimated that over 16,000 POWs from England, Australia, Holland and America died while building the bridge which was a target of bombing raids in 1945. In addition to this, as many as 150,000 laborers from Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia died during its construction. Rebuilt after WWII, the bridge is still in use today with the curved portions of the bridge being that of the original. An attraction of note is the annual light and sound event at the bridge to commemorate the Allied attack in 1945.The railway currently ends at Ban Tha Sao or Namtok Station, a distance of some 77 kilometers from Kanchanaburi Station. A special train running from Bangkok to Namtok Station is available on weekends and national holidays.

Thai-Burma Railway to be Restored

In 2013, Junichi Fukasawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The Myanmar government has announced plans to complete a railroad and highway to promote economic development in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities on the route of the Thailand-Burma Railway built by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. The section in eastern Burma was largely abandoned after the war since the area was controlled by armed insurgents associated with ethnic minority groups, such as the New Mon State Party and the Karen National Union. [Source: Junichi Fukasawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 1, 2013**]

“However, restoration of the route became possible this year after the Myanmar government signed armistice agreements with both the NMSP and KNU. Aung Min, minister of the President's Office of Myanmar, who is in charge of peace talks with the two groups, said the railroad and highway would traverse a 100-kilometer stretch of the old railway, starting from Thanbyuzayat, the old railway's terminus on the Burmese side, to Three Pagodas Pass on its border with Thailand. **

“The Myanmar government began field surveys on the route in mid-December, and Myanmar President Thein Sein has recently endorsed funds to cover surveying of the highway portion. Myanmar has announced plans for several special economic zones along the Thai border to aid economic development in areas heavily populated by ethnic minorities, including one in the Three Pagodas Pass area, according to Aung Min. On the Thai side, a highway has already been built from Bangkok to near Three Pagodas Pass. **

“In addition to plans to connect with this highway, the government plans to discuss with the Thai side the possibility of reviving the defunct section of the old railway between Myanmar and Namtok, Thailand. It hopes to attract foreign manufacturers through infrastructure improvements in the special economic zones, Aung Min said. With plans to develop a port near Mawlamyine, capital of Myanmar's Mon State, a new railroad and highway could become a trade artery connecting India and Europe with Thailand and Vietnam, where many Japanese companies have factories. While Aung Min said his government welcomes foreign funds in the construction, indicating that overseas development aid would be accepted, he added that Myanmar would also fund the project.” **

Train Accidents in Thailand

In February 2003, five people were killed and 45 were injured when a passenger train collided with a cargo train on the Bangkok-Nong Kai line in Lopburi Province in central Thailand. The collision happened late at night. The line is used by tourist traveling between Bangkok and northern Thailand and Laos.

In August 2005, one people was killed and 27 were injured when a passenger train derailed in the troubled Muslim south. The accident occurred after workers began digging a drainage ditch under the tracks.

In January 2007, three people were killed and 1000 were uncured when two passenger rains collided outside the resort town of Hua Hin, The accidents occured before dawn after a Bangkok-bound train got on the wrong track and an hit an oncoming southbound train. A preliminary investigation revealed that the driver of the Bangkok-bound train ignored a red light.

In October 2009, an overnight passenger train derailed 13 kilometers south of the resort town of Hua Hin, south of Bangkok, in heavy rain, killing 10 people and injuring 88. The train was traveling from southern city of Trang to Bangkok. All the dead, including a two-year-old girl, were female. Six foreigners, including a man with broken ribs, were among the injured. Police officer Udom Chainoom told AP: “Those killed suffered from the impact while some of them were crushed. [Sources: AP and AFP]

The train jumped the tracks as it approached a station. About a half dozen of the train’s 16 cars came off the tracks. An early investigation indicated the accident was probably caused by the train’s driver falling asleep. Thai Transport Minister Sophoon Zarum told AFP the train appeared to have gone through a red light signal and was speeding before the incident, which occurred at 4:50am. Train accidents on Thailand’s aging railway system are not rare in the rainy season, especially at crossings. Less than 24 hours before the Hua Hin accident another train carrying cement powder derailed north of Bangkok.

Tourists Injured in Thailand Train Accident

In July 2013, dozens of foreign tourists were injured in train derailment in northern Thailand Associated Press reported: “A passenger train derailed on old tracks in the mountains of northern Thailand early in the morning, slightly injuring at least 30 passengers, mostly foreign tourists. It was the second derailment on the popular route in a month. The overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai skidded off the tracks and seven out of 10 carriages flipped onto their sides, State Railway of Thailand governor Prapas Jongsanguan said. The accident occurred in Phrae province's Denchai district. [Source: Associated Press, July 17, 2013]

Railway authorities believed the accident was caused by old tracks that were scheduled for repair. "From an initial investigation, the train was traveling under its limit, but the tracks at that stretch were old and in poor condition. The last carriage, therefore, skidded and brought down other cars," Prapas told The Associated Press on the phone. Prapas said one passenger was seriously injured. The rest suffered minor injuries and were provided free transport to their destinations.

The Bangkok-Chiang Mai train is popular among foreign tourists. A Bangkok-bound train from Chiang Mai derailed early this month, but no one was injured. Train service heading north on the route was expected to resume after the wreckage was cleared.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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