The state of Thai railway

Here in Thailand, we often follow the British way of things. Our schools are K-12, we drive on the left side of the road, and we use the Metric system. However, there's one curious thing we do that is closer to the US: our affinity for cars.

Once you start looking for it, it's everywhere. Tourist attractions have parking lots, not bus stops. Most of the travelling surface in Old Bangkok is car asphalt and not sidewalks. And god forbid, one of Bangkok's most defining features is its towering tollway system, something even London considers blasphemous. The automobile is undeniably tied to the life of a Thai.

But we might have forgotten something. Let me steal a commonly-used statement: Train travel is so ubiquitous in Europe, and people ride those without a second thought. They are easy to book, comfortable, and travel faster than any car straight to the city center. Where did trains here in Thailand go? Why aren't our train system anywhere near as advanced?

Shoved to the side

Let me restate that last question differently. How the heck are we surviving fine without high-speed trains everywhere? The answer would not surprise an American - we drive for distances under 400km, and if it's further away and near an airport, we fly. Domestic flights happen at least twice a day, are quite hassle-free, and is a lively market populated with three low-cost carriers.

It's technically possible to do an overnight drive for really long distances, for example from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I've tried that once, and I'm not doing it again!

For travel within Bangkok, we do have the BTS and MRT system, but there are also the much-cheaper-but-less-tourist-friendly buses and vans. Many people end up using road-based transit, and even we only consider taking the skytrains as a "traffic avoidance measure". The train isn't exactly the norm.

The van system in Thailand is quite unique, and probably deserves an article of its own.

A different role

Most of the time, the train isn't the best way to get from A to B, and the way trains are used represent this.

Thailand's railways operate in a fairly antiquated manner. Most of the line is single-track and controlled by a token system - only some higher-capacity segments are double-tracked and signalled. In addition, all trains run on Diesel, with electric feed lines only present on mass transit tracks. Some railside communities even encroach the track area, much to the chagrin of the train operators who are forced to go through slowly!

As a result, trains feel more like a chill trip with views of local life than a way to get somewhere. Locals give them the nickname "ถึงก็ช่าง ไม่ถึงก็ช่าง", an onomatopoeia for the sound of wheels hitting track joints that means "I don't care whether I get there or not".


I can't help but see the similarities between Amtrak's barely-profitable situation and SRT's similarly dire state. Both are "private companies" run by the state. Heck, both of them mostly operate diesel trains, with only a small portion being electrified!

Unlike SRT, however, Amtrak is striving hard to regain profits. Reducing the frequency of money-losing long haul routes, reducing the food quality, and adding finer-grained pricing options are only some of the ways the company is using to cut costs. This naturally caused ire among long-term rail fans, as they're more used to a high-quality service than cheap costs. SRT's future plans, on the other hand, mostly rests upon new double-tracked, electrified segments. These tracks promise faster speeds, less accidents (mostly because most grade crossings are replaced with overpasses or underpasses), and a more desirable service; TLDR, they're trying to flip the image of rail from an antiquated form of transport to a competitive choice, like in Europe.

While I root for SRT's success (I always get sleepy after the 3-hour drive required to get anywhere that's not halfway up the country), I have a hard time believing they can pull this off. Firstly, SRT is stuck in a catch-22 where they don't have enough money, so they can't improve their services, so passengers don't like riding on the train, so ticket sales decline, so they don't have enough money. Secondly, SRT has to shake apart the long-time image of an obsolete form of transport run by 30-year-old locomotives. With Thailand being a country famous for (holding onto) its past, this might be hard to do.

The uncertain future

With a productive 6-year-long term by a single prime minister (no wonder why people are protesting for re-election!), plans for Thailand's future is riddled with rail projects. This is no surprise, given the strong tourism industry and chronic traffic problems. For long-distance rail, the many projects include double-tracking, new alignments which are straighter and more level, and high-speed rail. The country seems to be on track to a prosperous railway future.

However, this gamble might also fail. Maintenance is not one of SRT's strong points - I can't find any mention of preventative maintenance on long-distance tracks, and the Airport link "brown line", SRT's venture into suburban transit, is known for its frequent issues and general lack of repairwork. A train that is usually fast but has an insignificant chance of breaking down and forcing you to miss your meeting is not going to get many customers.

One of the biggest reasons that SRT trains have so many delays is that, on the current single-track system, all train movements must happen in a preplanned sequence. Any large delay, for instance from a broken level crossing or an accident, would shift the timetable for the entire line downward. This is one of the headaches that come with using a single-track mainline.

That said, there are success stories elsewhere in Thailand's modern rail saga - Bangkok's suburban rail. The new Purple Line serves the area reliably, and after gaining a connection point that is so problematic the prime minister had to intervene enjoys over 70,000 rides per day. The new Blue Line segments, giving Bangkok a Circle Line of its own, also gains considerable popularity. The BTS recieved multiple expansions; The light green line now cuts through and beyond the city, stretching almost forty kilometers long. Even more projects are due to finish within a decade from now.

With an applause or not, the face of rail in my country is changing. The only question left is, when I take my kids to Chiang Mai in a decade's time, will I take them onto a train or a car?


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