Portrait of a station I

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‘The secrets of Saraphi’

A sauntering around the station these days is different from the past. Years ago there was a sign along the old road from Chiang Mai to Lamphun – flanked by big trees – pointing into what seemed to be a dead end Soi (Thai name for a small street). The end was a wind and weather plagued station building almost forlorn in the backwaters of a sleeping village in the pace where nothing changes and remains the same for ages.
Through all the years being in Thailand once in a while going there and see what’s on the sleeve or discovering this village found the connection with the rest of the world. Where ones the track was the only mean of transportation, the modernization brought tar macadam, speeding traffic even on both sides of the station grounds.
Saraphi; kilometre 742 plus 790 meter and track wise 8.635 from Chiang Mai. Three tracks and one side spur with a push block. This track, shortened by one of the newly build roads, led to a company of agricultural products and they shipped by rail before this task shifted to the road, the State Railway of Thailand lost the battle concerning transporting goods. Behind the gate some rail and loading ramp are still visible as a daunted souvenir, remembrance of better days. Two signals on both ends of the yard but the only thing changed is the semaphore itself replaced by a pole with electric lamp. The iron wires are still there for moving the points though some of the levers of the heavy working device are now connected to a switch.
This is railway on its best, a living museum for the benefit of keeping the mechanical operating things from the past alive. And so does the security, no software but mechanical as well; the good old token system. A steel bullet released by a machine after the stationmaster or assistant by telegraph secured the section. The bullet goes in a leather pocket attached to a Rotan hoop and given to the driver in case of stopping otherwise fixed to a pole on the edge of the platform so the driver can grab it while passing most times at full speed. It needs a bit of experience but what if he fails to seize the hoop? Well, braking, slowly riding backwards and fetch the thing this time from a halt. However, in theory there’s no system stopping the train automatically if for what ever reason the driver decides to ride on without a token on board. It’s a must for a single track operation in case two stationmasters on both ends of the section deciding to let a train depart. A man made railway and relaying on his trust, there’re no mad men in service only dedicated workers though through all the years of history a few derailments can be point out.
The railway staff does have some freedom to decorate their workplace as they like, it makes a difference and none of the rural stations is equal to the others but mostly through minor details. A fancy style with a lot of kitschy greenery or plants in a pot with bright colours not to speak of fluorescent, eye killers if you wish. At least they make an effort to give things a homey look. In that respect most stations have their own character; someone with in the railway department with a sense of competition should organize a sort of ‘beauty contest’ and proclaim a winner, the real ‘miss’ among the stations. Saraphi if chosen wouldn’t any longer the same even as it is without winning, a small village under the dust of Chiang Mai. Maybe some of the inhabitants are the same, their lives still following the path of centuries, a peaceful coexistence with nature and the things that try to disturb that harmony.
The railway is not convenient for them once a day a local train is stopping in both directions but almost without any sense. Even going to Chiang Mai and back on the same day is out of the question, no connection. The local bus and Song Thaew (two banks; meaning a pick-up truck) are the only modes of transportation reliable unless like the living you’ve all the time on your side.

The stationmaster guided the arrival of train 407 from Nakhon Sawan.

The stationmaster guided the arrival of train 407 from Nakhon Sawan.

Saraphi yard

For more pictures see the set: Portrait of a station on Flickr click here.

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About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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