It was March 26th 1986, the day whereupon Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong (Central) Station filled again with steam and smoke – kettles above fire and boiling water – a by that time almost forgotten form of traction but still appealing to imagination. Steel horses that once gallop on rail restored in old splendour.
Officially the SRT steam era ended in 1975 but quit a number of engines – wood burners class 800 – 900 and C.56 (former Japanese Railways) – were kept aside as standby engine allocated on various sheds or depots and still in use mainly shunting duties to save fuel for the diesel locomotives in the light of soaring oil prices. Economical circumstances prolonged their life. Beside these machines in the late seventies other engines were there as well, some stored and others preserved or waiting for the man with the hammer. It was not before 1982 that finally steam operated locomotives disappeared from the roster, a mere four years before the first heritage run took place from Bangkok to Ayutthaya vice versa and since repeated on different occasions.
The Thonburi depot became a bulwark for remaining engines where a handful dedicated Railway men with the help of some foreigners gave a lot of afford to restore the old beasts and keeping them in rolling condition. The first show to the public featured engine 950 on the eighty-ninth birthday of the Thai Railways, no better way to celebrate.
950, type Mikado, wheel arrangement 2-8-2, an oil burner the way it was built by Mitsubishi Japan in 1950 with works number 695 and one of the last steam engines ordered by the SRT. In March 1986 it was the pride of the day, nowadays the machine functions as a static object in front of the former Thonburi station building, on the brink of the Chao Phraya River, completely incorporated by the Sirirat Hospital accommodating a medical museum. Apparently there wasn’t enough substance to keep the engine in running order, some of the parts for sure were used for others to prohibit them the same faith. Maybe in the past things weren’t always beautiful or went smooth, in the present too.
To keep things of a bygone era alive is more than a noble achievement. Preserved history, for the kids to learn and see how the past evolved and why these machines became obsolete or part of a museum.
A real railway museum, something Thailand still fails and on the other hand being a living museum along the line. Old steam engines are scattered and put on display at many stations, to see them is a journey on it self. But who knows, one day, they all come home if the Hua Lamphong station will close her doors, the perfect location for a museum and if they keep one track open to the Eastern line, regular living steam would be a major thing and certainly attracts visitors despite the many level crossings being a plaque for Bangkok’s traffic.
The latter courses why Hua Lamphong will be replaced to Bang Sue; a new intermodal between train and subway, the building process started already and will be completed within a few years.
The SRT birthday run and on the birthday of the king are a bit dull for a fan pure once done, not the run itself but the long time in between at Ayutthaya. For a non specific railway fan, most Thai, an excellent opportunity to make a cultural tour through town with its numerous ancient temples or ruins. Sightseeing on the spot with a good meal of course. It’s the only opportunity to sniff steam saturated air, hearing the sounds but above all seeing how the mechanics working. The magic wheel and only one way to power it; by steam.
Picture above: The state of Garret 456 at the Bang Sue depot yard on May 26th 1989 before the machine transferred to Kanchanaburi for display first in the back of the station but later in front of it.
Pictures below: The engines 953 + 824 gave a demonstration in Ayutthaya between arrival and depart with a special train (heritage run) from Bangkok v.v. on March 26th 1989.
2) Engine 950 in front of the first heritage train on March 26th 1986.
3) Engine 950 in front of the former Thonburi station building.
4) The magic wheel and other steamy details.
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.
A PKR tram-train along the Rama V Road near the stop Sala Daeng in the fiftees.
Bangkok’s successor of the city tramway, the BTS with an overwhelming infrastructure. The Ratchaprasong intersection on 15.03.1998
Single track, semaphore and belching locomotive. Nothing new, as it was and still is. Chiang Mai March 1986.
Old locomotive and lovely tree, only the latter is gone. Saraphi 15.04.1987.
A thought about the train
Nakhon Pathom March 26th 1993 a random picture without further connection with the text below it’s just an illustration but typical Thai and only fitting the concept in a certain way.
The SRT – State Railway of Thailand – is a governmental company and all that comes along with especially making huge losses year after year. Once in a while complaints about in the paper, Bangkok Post front page news but there’s nothing new at all. It’s an old road or in this case better spoken: railroad, making money with Public Transportation (train, tram, bus) is a dream and remains a delusion until we learn to organize the things in a natural way. It only can be successful if some of the real costs kept hidden from the public by making a manipulated bookkeeping.
Although there’re companies writing black ciphers, a relief for any stock holder, it does not in pare with the reality. Japan is a fine example; once a sole (state owned) company the JNR – Japanese National Railways, famous for its Skinhansen, a high-speed network, the first in the world, beside a cape gauge (1067 mm) system. A well organised and good running enterprise, exactly what a railway should be and how to operate. However, the finances didn’t stay in line and Japan decided to split the company in different private entities leaving behind a loss of enormous proportions, millions and more Dollars not name it in Yen. A financial burden so to speak but not on the shoulders of the new companies and nobody spoke about later when the results of the different bodies were published and proudly proofed being profitable.
Trick and tricks only like in Europe where under the rule of Brussels (European Union) most State Railways were forced to give up their identity and being privatised. The infrastructure remains in state hands as a different endeavour responsible for maintaining the network and building new lines. All others competent to run a train were also able to use it against a matching fee pro kilometre. A simple solution and it sounds fantastic at least for ears based on capitalism instead of a more socialistic orientated nature. Dollar signs, making money, greed… The evil will not end.
It has reshaped the European Railway Network (not in all countries yet) more and more different companies and maybe for any railway enthusiast the ultimate paradise, the reality is another thing. In my opinion to much money is wasted to keep a brand upright. In Germany for example; the local governments are responsible for the local transport hereto they buying the services from the lowest bidder, this could be a private one or the national railways operated under one brand: DB – Deutsche Bahn with affiliates. In the end it’s still taxpayers money that pays the bills, why not so in the first place without the privatisation construction? Somewhere in the chain someone makes money on someone else’s expense without any doubt but the question or even thought that there might be another solution won’t be asked.
Back to Thailand and I can imagine why policy-makers dream of an elucidation like painted because it takes a trouble of their hands. Running a railway needed a farsighted view and for all knowledge about or better a certain inspiration instead of occupying a chair (management seat) shared by the old boys network. In the end it is not the manager that makes a railway roll but the real workers on the floor. The engine driver, the conductor, the sleeper car attendant, the switchman, the gatekeeper, the station master and his assistance, the workers along the line to keep the things in shape, without them nothing won’t work and would leave any politician and manager empty handed.
Systems; and all have their pro and contra things but the one in Thailand is running on its last legs so to speak. Neglecting and not enough investment makes it almost a museum venture and nothing against it neither this must be a bad omen. On the contrary as long as it for fill a safe duty and with sufficient maintenance it can be continued for years. From the heart of the matter it might be wise to put an historian on the helm or even better a railway fan with both attitudes of being a good business man on the one side without loosing the sight of the real state of existence.
No time to whine, tears won’t bring relief only more sorrow. It’s the twilight zone of decisions former politicians never made because they had no clue or something else was far more important, own interest for example instead the concern for a nation as a whole. To govern means anticipating the future, it couldn’t be repeated enough.
It was all about steam, a special ride from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and this station chosen for refuelling; wood and water, the later with help from the local fire brigade.
‘Steam in paradise’
The secrets of a number
Living in Chiang Mai and being dedicated to the railways necessarily doesn’t mean it’s going hand in hand, the so called Rose of the North is rather dull but certainly a paradise for things beyond the rail.
Still you’re surprised if someone tells you having spot a steam locomotive in the vicinity – not running but plinthed – on a place far away from where the railway runs.
By all means the message isn’t surprising at all, after many solitude years of exploring the SRT – State Railway of Thailand also others did an excellent job by bringing the bits an pieces together. Meanwhile a lot of young Thai railway enthusiasts flock the internet something a mere twenty years ago was completely out of the question.
Along the road to Samoeng (Road Nº 1269) in the midst of lush greenery steam engine 744 plus coach is plinthed on the premises of what seems to be a resort in progress. It happened before in 1992 but closer to town on Road Nº 1001 towards Mae Jo, this time with two coaches in use as sales office for a real estate development project behind it. They even build a platform with canopy and the whole thing looked like a station.
A lovely eye catcher.
The project failed and the engine plus coaches disappeared without any traces. Mike Pass discovered it again on the spot as described but by that time a complete wilderness. Mr. Mike – or better called steam engine sleuth – compiled an illustrated guide: Thai Steam today & Yesteryear (latest edition 2012). For any steam enthusiast and preparing a travel along a specified past, a wonderful guide for a most extra ordinary Thailand trip. This steam engine in all her splendour and decay is a survivor together with nine others constructed by different locomotive makers between 1935-1936 for the JNR – Japanese National Railways as type 2-6-0 class C56. Building the notorious Thailand – Burma Railway the Japanese brought a number of these engines with them. After the defeat they were sold include a remained part of the Burma line to the SRT, incorporated and given the numbers: 701-746. Many years after the happily ran on the SRT network especially on the Burma line or better spoken what was left of it as far as Saiyok Noi waterfall – Nam Tok – km 131.504 measured from Nog Pla Duk Junction where the Burma Line divided from the Southern Line starting at Bangkok.
After their life span was finished and the SRT replaced steam by diesel two of them were kept in running condition (Nº 713 and 715) while others find their way as showcase most in or around a station.
744 is an exemption. This steamer has its former JNR number stamped on the joints of some motion parts (rods) not all are the same and this could mean there was an exchange of parts from other locomotives. However on the 744 most stamped numbers read C56.53 so one can assume this is the original engine and not a mixed product from several other earlier scrapped engines. Numbers are deceptive especially running numbers, they are easily painted on the body or painted false in a later stadium and thus a puzzle remains for them who want to know the truth. Locomotive identity is a study on its own. The works number by all means is a starting point and if this can be found on any engine the first step is solved, however, still it doesn’t give 100% security.
Imagine you’re the owner of a railway company, proud of your steam engines and want them to run as long as possible, of course you take all the usable parts of the machines really outworn and use them for the other ones meaning there not the same as when they roll out of the factory.
The dept and consequences of numbering is a theme apart and for me in case of the 744 and other engines of this type not that important. What you see is what you get and by the way most visitors of the new resort will have no clue what so ever when they entering the grounds and be greeted by an old steam engine and coach.
SRT 701-703 JNR C56.3-5 Mitsubishi 155-157 – 1935
SRT 704-709 JNR C56.6-11 Kawasaki 1551-1556 – 1935
SRT 710-712 JNR C56.12-14 Kisha Seizo 1299-1300 – 1935
SRT 713-714 JNR C56.15-16 Hitachi 628-629 –1935
SRT 715-716 JNR C56.17-18 Nippon Sharyo 374-375 – 1935
SRT 717-718 JNR C56.20-21 Mitsubishi 166-167 – 1935
SRT 719-722 JNR C56.23-26 Kisha Seizo 1352-1355 – 1936
SRT 723 JNR C56.28 Nippon Sharyo 406 – 1936
SRT 724-726 JNR C56.30-32 Nippon Sharyo 408-410 – 1936
SRT 727 JNR C56.34 Nippon Sharyo 412 – 1936
SRT 728-729 JNR C56.36-37 Nippon Sharyo 414-415 – 1936
SRT 730-733 JNR C56.38-41 Mitsubishi 173-176 – 1936
SRT 734-739 JNR C56.43-58 Mitsubishi 178-183 – 1936
SRT 740-746 JNR C56.49-55 Kawasaki 1600-1705 – 1936
Picture above the 744 in Chiang Mai on its former location at road 1001
April 23rd 1992.
Pictures below the 744 in Chiang Mai on its new location at road 1269
March 19th 2015.
‘Gauge, meter or standard, it’s no question’
A talk about gauge but not only that, the distance between two rails measured from the inside of the head. On the picture a proofed device to overcome transhipment in other wagons and transporting standard gauge (1435 mm) goods wagons on a meter gauge (1000 mm) track.
The Southeast Asian (old) railway network is build on meter gauge – Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia and the isolated rails of North Borneo. Thailand started with standard done by German engineers hired by a farsighted monarch in order to avoid any conflict with Western forces (British and French) colonizing the neighbouring countries. However, while Thailand declared war on Germany in 1917 the railway workers couldn’t precede with there job and were send home.
The British took over and they decided meter would be the standard and thus regauging what already happily ran on 1435 mm. A waist of money, time, labour and rolling stock, not all steam locomotives and wagons could be adjusted. By all means a task that took ten years to complete.
For a very long time it ran without anyone thinking this must be changed. After the subway (Skytrain) and new airport line in Bangkok were build both on standard gauge and electrified, the High-speed train discussion – the Chinese taking lead – triggered the idea of regauging again. It’s a fruitless discussion and beyond the reality of any intelligent thinker unless a country is capable to carry the financial burden without any complaint. In my opinion Thailand by far has such a position and seen from the political side hypocrite, after all they came up with the idea instead of thinking what went wrong in all those years?
Nothing went wrong at least at the railways itself, what really wide of the mark is a lack on interest or not being farsighted enough by politicians, obviously they had other interests to obey, an attitude of let the iron way run till it falls apart. A lack of an appropriate investment, if this was done time on time a meter gauge network would be completely update and no one would doubt the gauge or more precisely; it wouldn’t be any hinder for a swift transportation.
Japan still is the best example beside the famous Shinkansen (新幹線) – a high-speed network on standard gauge – the rest remained on cape gauge (1067 mm) and functions well even with certain speed limits.
It’s the ultimate luxury of dreaming going fast and faster despite the cost. It’s a way of being spoilt, for the sake of joy what’s so nice on fast but nothing else to see? All what matters is the arrival; a minute more or less on a lifetime should not be the question, that’s madness, the one dictated by an unpredictable economy with certain priorities, mostly personal interest. It’s all between two ears depending on the gauge and not derailing. One must face the reality; by doing nothing or nothing enough at least, a once lovely system became deteriorate in the sense of techniques and more and more a museum of the past. Nothing wrong with it if mend for but that’s not the case, certainly not in Thailand. Even the right man on the helm can’t fix this overnight; it’ll take years like the railway network in and around Bangkok – the capital – slowly got shape. Why there and not elsewhere?
Because there’s no other choice, if water reaches men’s ankles – in Bangkok no exemption – he’s still able to live with it. However, if it reaches his lips more drastic measurements must be taken to avoid drowning. In terms of traffic Krung Thep (Thai name for Bangkok) drowned already and it is to be expected that the new trains come too late.
Bangkok in the first place was build on the wrong place but nobody can be blamed for this, nobody can bear the responsibility, it’s a huge amount and power that slowly will sink till only the upper part of high-rise as a remarkable beacon remains on something that couldn’t reverse the order. Another lifetime maybe or sooner than every one expected, climate change could trigger situations nobody wants. By far it’s no reason to stop the race in the capital and lying electrified rail on standard gauge (1435 mm) by the kilometre for some relieve or someone own’s benefit, the other side of a shining medal and in a certain sense a real mad man’s race. Again what’s needed is a man with foresight and capable to overcome today’s hinder. Starting from scrap is no option neither to re-gauge what ran for years successfully. The SRT they way it’s able to function today can be called a heritage railway and on it self nothing wrong with it, on the contrary; worth to be conserved. It only asks for a different attitude, another mentality, but above all the ability to make a choice and within that limit doing what have to be done…! For years to come there’ll be enough passengers to ratify this.
Taming the beast or taking its measure
Portrait of a station and town
The turntable revisited and tale revised; Nakhon Lampang and the station are always worth a visit. A new ornamental monument has been erected, a rooster, a sign of pottery and other china from the kilns of neighbouring activity. It’s a local landmark among others on the platform like the almost one to one scale horse and carriage another familiar sight in this city along the Northern Line 642 rail kilometres from Bangkok and 109 from Chiang Mai, the last and definitive stop.
A warm welcome greets you in all seasons of an ordinary life, especially at the station. Have a look at the people and the way they behave or more precise waiting in anticipation. There are not many trains running up and down the Northern line.
Time got lost in dream, a melancholic animation with a certain deathlike sphere in the vein of ‘waiting for Godot’ the playwright of Samuel Beckett.
“Bonjour, tristesse, the train will arrive for sure.”
The whole scene immediately changes when the ‘king of steel wheels’ arrives in conversation with the station bell and horn. Suddenly everything is throwing into commotion; the scent of making money awakes. The taxi drivers full alert on the look for costumers. Any unprepared traveler is like a prey and literary lured into their otherwise patently waiting cars.
When the flow dried up the eagerness is gone as well and it’s only up to them if they are willing to depart. It’s not that far to the centre of town but the climate is not inviting for a walk unless you take the sweat for granted. The sweltering heat, a merciless sun, her burning that turns a pale skin into a lovely Negro look. For a holiday maker no offence otherwise the folks at home won’t believe she or he’s been away at all. There’s not much to see unless the favorite is wandering around along the endless shops brimful with bric-à-brac, street after street the same composition but for a keen eye and interested in architecture there’s an exception; shopping houses mainly occupied by Chinese entrepreneurs and erected in Sino-Portuguese style mingled with other colonial influences.
Above all Lampang is the town of horse and carriage; listen to spruce sound of horseshoes fading away in the distance, passing the clock tower, an archaic monument mimicked as façade of an important appearance. It also functions as a gate, like the ones on many other places kept in memory on times one had to defend themselves behind walls against them who came to loot. A long time ago but here still sharp in memory.
The times of migration from an agricultural society to well developed city life is something that even midway the last century still was not in full swing. Krung Thep – in the West better known as Bangkok – in those days already a city though not the monster called mega metropolis the only one so far in this country. Meanwhile other cities emerged, for sure, but they still live in a village like pace apart from the mobility of the people. See for yourself and leave the railway for a moment behind.
However, a real rail buff is less served with a city tour. The station ground is the final destination. Not beyond the square where an old member of the workforce survived the man with the hammer and shines on plinth. That’s to say if someone, somewhere within the administration is prepared to keep it shining. In many other places this is absolutely not the case. Chiang Mai for long gave a chafing example how a ‘Swiss engine’ was slowly falling apart, a monument of deterioration and warning sign for the rest of the railway presumable in the same state. Recently a man with a brush came by for a cosmetic overhaul and even welded some rusty holes in the driver cabin. Back to Lampang’s momentum and monument: steam locomotive 728 shows him selves at the station square as a robust reminisces of the past. A wood burner with a 2-6-0 wheel arrangement built in 1936 by Nippon Sharyo under works number 414. It’s a former machine of the JNR – Japanese National Railways Nº C56.36.
Forty six engines of this type were imported during the days of World War II and after regauging (1067 into 1000 mm) and fitted with vacuum brake equipment, put in service. Quit a few survived the slaughter and found their way like this one did; two others were kept in a run able condition for special occasions.
Numerous times I passed the premise with a night train to Bangkok or coming from. On other times I liked to be forlorn in what can be described as a silent railway decoration were hardly anything moves until the first of a number night trains from Chiang Mai arrive. It’s just the pleasure of being there with nothing in mind and these days even as a Farang (white foreigner) your not any longer examined as a curiosum. A real loco spotter would be bored immediately; the one in love with another form of poetry will stick around, this station is worth his salt.
Steam locomotive 728 on the station square
The station building in Northern Lanna style and colonial influences