Bangkok on rails

‘The temptation of a bygone era’

The railway in its infancy. Who didn’t dream of a time machine and like a kid dressed in a sailor’s suit enjoy the arrival of the train. He must have been the first fan in the finest hours. He had nothing to fear, a child is free from greed unless raised with the same standards of his parents.
It was a farsighted monarch, the great king Chulalongkorn – Rama the fifth – who contracted a handful German railway engineers to build the first state railway line from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat). On March 26th 1896 ceremonial he nailed a golden spike and thus opened the first kilometres till Ayutthaya for traffic. Still the king was beaten with three years by a foreign company who constructed a 21 kilometre long line to Samut Prakan, Pak Nam; the river mouth, and by that time far beyond the boundaries of the city. Something these days one hardly can imagine riding a bus along the Sukhumvit Road and once partly part of the railway bed. Times are definitely changed and if the city counsellors were able to control their double agenda’s maybe within short the ‘Skytrain’ will enter a community were once Thailand’s first electric railroad ended here glories days in the early sixties, sacrificed for increasing traffic volumes, Yes, even by that time this was the talk of the day. Clocked roads and moving forwards on a snail pace that’s the way one can enjoy a more or less ready build extension but idle waiting to be opened for the public. The moment whereupon the personal gain of one ore more decision makers is sorted out. The phrase: TIT (This Is Thailand) became a common word and too familiar for some situations screaming for non self interest decisiveness.  
Enough politics despite rail economics are political; let’s linger for another while in the past days. It was the same evocative king who told one of his European advisors André Plessis de Richelieu that a tramway for the city was an appropriate choice. On June 1888 a 6.2 kilometre long horse tramway was opened between Lak Muang (City pillar) and Bangkok Dock. On September 22nd in the same year the line extended till Thanon Tok and thus measured 9.2 kilometres.
Two tiny horses, pony like, run out of power on the bulge of a bridge and thus the gentlemen aboard were kindly ask to push. How gentle those times  at the beginning of a flourishing enterprise with on his highest point seven lines and for years to come a prominent sighting in the bustling city.
On September 30th 1968 the curtain fell and people mourned their beloved tram on his last ride to the graveyard. The single track lay out in the kerb of the streets with by pass lanes and always one wagon riding against the stream, proved to be the looser for a lovely system bound to rail.
L’histoire se repait, though thirty years in between, and on December 5th 1999, the birthday of a not less beloved successor in the Chakri dynasty, rail again would transport passengers through the city free of any hardly moving obstacle with hazardous fumes. It’s far from enough, it’s mere a beginning in what’s build since and opened. Three separate enterprises still running from somewhere till nowhere and only proficient if you want to be there. No connection yet nor in ticketing but it’s all in progress like the extension to the suburbs.
The big cities in the West started digging tunnels for their subway system in the end of the ninetieth century. Bangkok by that time was the realm of oxcarts and nothing to worry about. History repeats itself while developments do not all occur on all places at the same time. The political rail focus indeed is focused extremely on Bangkok; hopefully this will not kill the rest of the network in the end.
Next time when you ride the line remember what it was and already could have been without delaying. A swift deciding and no longer linger in the pain of unfulfilled interest by some (but who knows how many) civil servants.
The temptation of a bygone era is not only that we were less but also another moral. The simplicity of honest techniques that stunned a young boy beside the rail though the one who took the picture is more in focus than the pretty decorated train. A pose, needy arranged, the way at those days wherein important happenings were captured for later. A remembrance; like the things of our days will be a remembrance for the next generation, even the mishaps and shortsighted views leaving many things derailed.


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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