Saturday, July 17, 2004

Bangkok's New Underground Train

Back in April when they were doing test runs of the new subway system in Bangkok, I jokingly said that I would wait a few months just to ensure that I wouldn’t be around for any potential tragedies initiated by the team of new employees operating the trains. Sure enough, within that 2-week period when they were giving the public the first opportunity to ride the new rail system, a driver absent-mindedly left the emergency brake on, resulting in the brake pads burning up, the passage, train and one of the stations filling up with smoke and all passengers being evacuated.

The system is now in full operation, having been opened officially 2 weeks ago. As there have been no further indications of dangerous cock-ups I decided to try out the new trains.

There is only one line at the moment, slicing from Bang Sue station in the north of Bangkok and terminating at Hua Lamphong in the southwest.  There are currently 18 stations, many of them along Ratchadapisek and Rama 4 rd. It is an excellent supplement to the Sky-Train and pushes Bangkok towards a time in the future when, like London for example, a person will hopefully be able to avoid the rancid and polluted cesspool that is the urban landscape of Thailand’s capital and instead be vomited forth from whichever underground station is closest to their intended destination.

For tourists who should rightfully exit Bangkok as quickly as possible to enjoy the rest of Thailand, Hua Lamphong will be the most welcomed destination on the underground system. Hua Lamphong is also the location of the main station in Bangkok for trains departing to the north and south of the country. With a number of the new subway stops intersecting at Sky-Train stations, it should be possible for most people to avoid the hassle of torturously slow traffic and sometimes unscrupulous cab drivers when making their way to the city's railway hub.

The underground stations have a minimalist, spacious design, featuring polished grey granite slab tiles speckled with black on the floors and walls. There are 3 levels in every station with wide-open concourses accessed from escalators starting at street level where you are greeted with a welcomed blast of air-conditioning.

The fare system involves black plastic tokens purchased from attendants behind glassed-in areas (there may be machines added later when ridership increases) which are touched to a pad on the turnstiles that activates their opening and which allows your departure when deposited into the turnstiles when exiting.

Train level is the narrowest of the 3 with only about 15-20 metres separating the trains running in opposite directions without a dividing barrier like in some systems. There are however sliding glass doors between the trains and the platform to increase safety such as in many operations in Europe.

The trains themselves are fast with seemingly about a one-minute duration between most stations. Plenty of head-space for travellers from foreign countries and rows of seats running lengthways so that if you do snag a seat you will be facing the person across from you. I approve of this choice as the odds are good that a Thai tart in a short skirt will be sitting on the opposite side.

However, with the 7 years involved in building the system and the countless billions spent it is a shame that they couldn’t have simply asked a native-speaker to proofread the (still welcomed) English signs...

"When the door closing warning sounds do not charging the doors."