The Magic wheel
Much have been written about the SRT – State Railway of Thailand or in own language: RFT – Rot Fai Thai, since king Chulalongkorn (Rama V) established the Railway Department in 1890 and hence hired German engineers to build Thailand’s first state railway line from Bangkok tot Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) a distance of 263 kilometre.
The part till Ayutthaya (km 71) went open to the public in 1897. However, foreign entrepreneurs (Belgium and Danish) build and opened the very first railway line on this part of the Orient in 1893 from Bangkok to Pak Nam (Samut Prakan) a distance of 21 kilometre.
After W.W.I this line was electrified and since then resembled a tram instead a classic train; steam locomotive with single axle coaches and open balconies for a joyful ride along today’s Rama V Road towards Khlong Thoey and by that time a lush countryside like surrounding today hardly imaginable. As early as December 30th 1959 the last train (or tram) of the PKR – Paknam Railroad departed, closure of the line with no other argument; Bangkok’s increasing traffic.
The same spat used to kill the city tramway network, the nine existing lines were closed one after each other, the last one on September 30th 1968.
It would take more than thirty years before electric magic wheels returned to the streets of Krung Thep (Bangkok) or better spoken; above it. In 1999 (December 5th, birthday of the king) the BTS – Bangkok Transit System opened her doors to the public. Since that day de development of electric city train systems didn’t stop.
On the side of the SRT things kept frozen in almost original state. None of the successively governments since completing the near 5000 km network and responsible for railway’s finances (as a state company) weren’t able to create funds for upgrading the system to the latest state of technical situation (modernizing) both infrastructure and rolling stock (locomotives and coaches). If a bright sighted minister had decided in time to electrify the railway lines especially in and around Bangkok, even on meter gauge, there would be a sufficient well working commuter system comparable with Japan were the old network was build in Cape gauge (1067 mm). 67 mm difference but not less functional if…
Japan’s famous Skinhansen, the world first commercial high-speed train, run on standard gauge, 1435 mm. It has certain advances above narrow gauge but not to the outmost. It’s a matter of choice and must be made at the beginning of a construction not halfway like Thailand did.
The German engineers start building on standard, however, the British responsible for constructing the Southern network did so on meter for the connection with Malaysia. Once the link between the two networks (North and South) came in place – a railway bridge (Rama VI) spanning the Chao Phraya River at Bang Sue – a problem arose. Good council is worth more than money and one decided to re-gauge the standard part to meter. A waist of investment while a lot of the by that time relative still young rolling stock couldn’t be converted and felt prey to the man with a hammer.
The overall task took ten years to complete and nowadays a transport minister of the cabinet is dreaming of re-gauging again, vice versa, l’histoire c’est répète. He’s also obsessed of the idea a high-speed train will bring solutions and perhaps they do but at what cost? A dreamer never tells you were the money must come from. His talks are opportunism because soon or later someone has to pay the bill, the future traveller in this case getting pale around the nose when he or she discover what a single trip will cost. Today’s railways thanks the government (not every thing is bad being a state company) are an affordable mode of transportation certainly for the common men with a limited income. It’s not the most modern, not the fastest, but it works and in the end that’s all what counts. The things rulers neglect by the years (proper investment) can’t be undone at once and indeed there’re small signs they started with it. Hopeful signs but also necessary because with or without new alignments for a high-speed train, the old railway can’t be missed. The magic wheels; it’s far from a waist to invest in that.