‘The rise and fall of a railway’
It made headlines in the newspaper: foreign quests walking along the track while their train tumbled of the rail on a remote spot far from any comfort and direct help. A night sleeping in one of the more luxurious trains on the Northern line between Bangkok and Chiang Mai ended upside down and for three tourists and two Thai citizens even in hospital.
A week later the same situation occurs though not on the identical spot but in the neighbourhood and this time inside a tunnel so the coaches stayed upright and the ones still on track were used to bring the passengers back to the last station from where they were transported by other modes. End good, all good.
However, these two cases do not represent themselves only there’s a series of mishaps and other things that lately put the railways in a different limelight. The signs of a worn-out system and what seem to be a lack of Governmental interest to keep it up to date. As a state company the railways are fully independent on the public authorities support in financial terms but also development. There weren’t any visionary ministers of transport during the successive governments since the first rails were laid by German engineers around the change of century hundred years ago and by that time a real blessing while most transportation was done by oxcart. Rural Thailand connected with the outside world. A six week journey between Bangkok and Chiang Mai by boat and on the back of an elephant reduced to three days while riding at night was considered as too dangerous.
On a certain moment the system was there in full pride with round and about a 4000 km network and totally on meter gauge (gauge is the size between the inside of two railheads) though this uniformity didn’t came smooth. The Germans build in standard gauge (1435 mm and worldwide the most common) however, due to political interference Thailand near the end of W.W. I declared war with Germany and prohibited all German railway workers to go on with their job; they simple were detained and sent home later.
The English took over and they already build their network in Malaysia on meter gauge. It was decided that the standard tracks would be converted into meter a task that took more than ten years to bring to an end, first by placing a third rail in between so standard gauge rolling stock could keep on rolling.
After all considered; a waist of investment because not the complete stock of locomotives and carriages could be adjusted and hence lived a short life. The scrap dealers must have had their days but as stated; the system was there and operated as it should operate. Nevertheless, on the basics nothing would change. Steam engines were replaced by diesel powered locomotives, diesel railcars entered the scene and now and then other obsolete rolling stock was replaced by new or second hand specimen like these days the trains from Japan and New Zeeland both previously multiple diesel units transformed into coaches with a lot of traces and remains of their former life. For a fan real heaven, the ordinary users have other thoughts about it (Spartan comfort).
The Thai Railways fell into a deep sleep – it was there, it functioned more or less, nobody seemed to bother – and would not wake up before it was too late. Too long most infrastructural developments were set aside for the automobile; a mistake not only Thailand made, the way Krung Thep (Bangkok) becomes today is just one of many poignant examples. Forced by the influence of gridlocks or better spoken ultimate hinder, the signals in Bangkok and surroundings became green and one started to bring back the rail to town after those of the tramway system were demolished at the end of the sixties. The BTS (Bangkok Transit System) was the first to be opened on December 5th 1999 the birthday of a beloved king. An elevated railway followed by the MRTA (Mass Rapid Transit Authority) fully underground. The latest is the airport express also an elevated railway, three separate electrified systems on standard gauge with none interaction. It’s begging for extension and going together and it will be, has to be, there’s no other choice for a city if it wants to stay alive.
In the end the government became comprehensible enough to understand the role of rail in a city on the brink of destroying itself by to much private movements. To sad for them who just bought their first car with a sturdy tax reduction, the one who implemented this is clearly a messenger boy of the auto industry and brings more than his salary.
Meanwhile the SRT is still the black sheep of the family. High-speed trains is the new dream and strict to the fact a good one, affordable or not, but even than the old network can’t be missed and has to be improved if it has to last longer. Not the entire network being in a deplorable state, the pieces that are should be overhauled; every thing out include the bedding stones to keep the sleeper with rail at foot and renewed with heavier rail for better speed and none derailments. It’s a technical question with easy answer, it’ll cost something but worth the investment and by the way a fraction of a high-speed network price tag. The fashion predict to dream and thus the government makes a lot of promises hard to implement meanwhile the deterioration won’t stop, it’s simply waiting for the next derailment.
There’s one more fairy tale in need for demystification, the matter of gauge and of course it matters but not to every cost. The changing of gauge happened once, don’t do it again, it’s a waste of time but above all investment. There’s nothing wrong with meter as long as the infrastructure constructed well, speed up to 160 km per hour easily can be reached and that’s double from what can be done now not jeopardizing travellers safety. Even high-speed on narrow gauge is possible, the best example can be found in Taiwan – between Taipei and Kaohsiung – a brand new line (partly elevated) on so called cape gauge (1067 mm) like the rest of the isle’s network.
It always depends on the men on the helm, the first remain only for a while, the railway must sustain and due to a handful dedicated workers it succeed but can’t do so ad infinitum.
The picture on top comes from the Bangkok Post and was taken by Taweesak Sukkasem.