‘The semaphore serenade’
Uttaradit at the end of the station platform facing in Northern direction, there they are; a tall one, a small one (a giant – a dwarf) one thin, one fat, Stan and Oliver, the Laurel and Hardy among signals. Railway design, the days wherein the characteristic sound could be heard on almost every station. The rattling of thin iron wires when the stationmaster or traffic controller, pulled the lever of a not so easy operating mechanism and a few yards away, or even miles, the arm of a classic signal went up. Not all were abandoned; some stations on the Northern line still stick to the semaphore and the good old token system as well. Besides rattling the sound of a bell means a train is coming. If you want a railway, you get a railway. In earlier stories I often described the State Railway of Thailand as a museum enterprise, something someone within the system does not want to hear because he believes that it will have a negative connation. On the contrary, it’s a compliment. However, the course of this status has another background and nothing to do with preservation in the first place. It’s a lack of real interest from the ones on the helm, in case of the railways; the government. The SRT is a hundred percent state own company and if all the past administrations had done a bit more beside talking alone or come up with the most fantastic plans, maybe this story was a pure remembrance. A talk about the hey-days, the old days, but it’s not.
Happily for me and a few others who admire things from the past, the way it was or recently stated in the Bangkok Post: the railways are the only thing in this country that never changed. Congratulations. On the other hand if you want to have it this way, preserves, otherwise it will fall apart, slowly but after a certain point of corroding not unnoticed. Enough, it’s all politics and I cannot mingle with that, as long as the poetry is still there, let’s enjoy it.
Pak Nampho, the roundhouse: yes, the semaphores: no, replaced by ugly lamp posts. The turntable is there but nothing shall be reversed. The typically shaped chimneys are still fitting the roof, yet a smokeless reminder. The steam engines were needy placed underneath so while sleeping the fire kept burning and no one inside was suffocating. A relict in time, a polluting one as well. Something you have to keep in mind talking about the good old days of iron steam horses and their jockeys who let them gallop on rail and passing the points till the signal. A halt or free ride if there were no obstructions. Signals are there for the sign but is there any one who told us that they also are appealing to the eye?
A personal story and in the end another picture, the Tapah Road station in Malaysia, a semaphore jungle in English stile. Count the poles and wonder which track they guard. Back to Pak Nampho close to the river Nan, were a small boat gentle push the bow against the river bank. Without any wet feet save ashore.
I paid a little more and the ferry left the quay in Nakhon Sawan without waiting for other passengers. My goal is a pleasant afternoon at the station. It looks like an almost forgotten stop, only a settlement for railway workers. Here the change of shift takes place among well known faces. Any farang is an exeptional appearance.
The foreigner, one only can wonder about, moreover as a train departs without him on board. A few Thai words blew all the guesswork to pieces and I cannot tell the tale anonymously any more. ‘Chom rom rao rak rot fai’ literarily translated: ‘Club we like trains’. The name provoked a smile, something familiar; it breaks the ice and this in sweaty weather. They invited me to see the roundhouse from the inside and we have a chat at the office. Behind weathered glass a framed posture of men with their machines captured in time. A tableau vivant and something the men of today can be proud of. A driver invites me to visit his house and have a look at another picture, bigger, and by no means in connection with the comrades long ago. It’s just simple art; a steam train in a surrealistic painted landscape.
With a chat about nothing in particular the time goes by at his palace in decay, the best way to describe his pied-a-terre beside the rail. However, right behind the door on the planking a brand-new motorcycle reveals the truth. One should not compare, a Thai obviously has other wishes and not the joy of a well decorated interior dictated by modern design and comfort. It’s an excuse in advance and well aware of other opportunities. “Don’t look at the mess, I just live alone.”
The latter is not beside the fact only that his imaginable wife shall running this household in the same way. The cracking sound of a walkie-talkie suddenly fills the air with a rush. Quickly the men put on his uniform and walks to the track bed in anticipation of the train that will come. And such while more or less he just could climb out of his window direct into the cabin.
A cargo train full of oil passes the signals on its way to wherever. My ticket was bought on forehand, free, but unfortunate the train headed in a wrong direction.
No remorse, I enjoyed many cabin rides before.