Just before leaving Bangkok I took a trip on the city’s new standard gauge ‘purple’ metro line the first half of which only opened to passengers on 6th August 2016. This section runs for 23km from Tao Poon, near Bang Sue North-West to Khlong Bang Phai in Rat Burana district.
I started my trip by getting a taxi through the choked city streets to Hualamphong station. Anyone who’s every travelled in the city will know its fearsome reputation for traffic jams which mean even the shortest journeys can take an age. You never know just how long it will take you to get from A-B by road. The Indonesians have an expression for it, ‘jam karet’ (‘rubber time’). Frustrating as it is for visitors, imagine what it must be like to be one of the cities long-suffering taxi or bus drivers, who must have the patience of Buddha.
Hualamphong had changed since my last visit in 2015, with mixed results. On the good side, there’s now a special ticket office for tourists which is located opposite platforms 7-8. The building used to be home to an excellent Thai soup kitchen that was full of steaming vats of different and delicious varieties from around the kingdom. I’d often eat there when I was staying nearby, so I’m sad to see it’s gone. Gone too are all the hawkers who used to sell food and drink on the platforms. No longer can you buy bamboo skewers of chicken or pork slowly grilled over charcoal, or the bags of sticky rice that used to accompany them. Even the shops that used to occupy the booths on platforms 4-5 are deserted. I think the slow demise of these eateries began when the authorities banned the sale & consumption of alcohol in 2014, after the rape and murder of the 13 year old girl aboard a train by a railway employee. It still seems an over the top response, especially as the crime wasn’t carried out by passengers. Shops and a food hall can be found on the main concourse under the attractive arched roof, but the restaurant & bar on the mezzanine floor has closed down, which is a shame. It used to be a great place to sit, sip a beer and people watch before catching a train. There’s a couple more improvements on the platforms, as some have been equipped with electronic departure/arrival screens by the buffer stops and four of the roads outside the roof now have fancy canvas roofs covering the first few coach lengths. Even so, some of the life an interest seems to have gone out of the place. This wasn’t helped by the fact that services to Malaysia, Hat Yai & other Southern destinations in Thailand had all been cancelled due to unseasonal floods washing away the tracks in the South. Here’s a few pictures…
Eschewing the tourist ticket office I bought a ticket to Bang Sue Junction from one of the ordinary ticket windows for the princely sum of 2 baht (less than 6p!). Not bad for an 11.5km journey – especially when you consider that the metro journey between the two would cost 70 baht! The train that took me there was made up of wooden seated 3rd Class coaches headed by a diesel loco built by Alsthom. No 4150 was one of the first batch of 54 supplied in 1975 although its one of the fleet that’s had its original engine replaced with an MTU 16V4000R41R power unit.
The trip to Bang Sue was the usual stop/start affair as we negotiated several busy level crossings en-route. They don’t exactly help traffic flows around the city and they’re one of the reasons that the main terminus for Bangkok is moving to Bang Sue. Although it’s years late and still under construction, the new station is already an impressive sight. The first inkling that you’re getting close when you see the enormous, twin track concrete viaducts rise on either side of the existing lines before they sweep across to the right in a wide arc to what was the site of Bang Sue’s carriage sidings and goods yard. These have been swept away to make way for the site of the new interchange, which will be a vast, four storey station with tracks on two levels. When it’s complete it’s planned to have 24 600 metre long platforms, reportedly making it the largest station in Asia. Construction is now well underway. All the massive pillars appear to be present and they’re festooned with cranes and gantries which are lifting the huge concrete segments to make up the train decks into place. Meanwhile, the old, partially demolished station continues in its role.
Leaving the train at Bang Sue I crossed the tracks on foot and weaved my way through the numerous hawkers food stalls to get to the main road and bus stops. I’d just missed one of the shuttle buses that connect with the purple line terminus at Tao Poon, so, as it was a cloudy day and not too humid I elected to walk the 1km distance between the two as it gave me chance to check out the Blue line extension of the existing underground line which will eventually link the two. This rises up out of the ground like the launch ramp of a V1 rocket, before levelling off on a not unattractive viaduct to reach Tao Poon, where it passes under the Purple line to create a station in the perfect shape of a cross. It’s a massive elevated edifice that involves a serious amount of steel and concrete. But, at the moment, the lack of a real rail interchange is having a serious effective on purple line passenger numbers. It’s only carrying 20,000 instead of the projected 70,000 per day. The blue line extension is currently expected to open in August this year.
Making my way up the steps and elevators to the concourse I found the place pretty quiet. Admittedly, it was early afternoon, but it was clear the station was built to cope with far more passengers than it was seeing. I used one of the bilingual ticket machines to buy a ticket (well, a plastic token in reality) to take me to the Northern terminus at Khlong Bang Phai for 42 baht. Thanks to Brexit this is just (but only just) under a pound. At the moment a quid is worth a smidgen over 43 baht. Before that economic and political disaster you would have got 53 baht for a quid. Cheers Quitters! But I digress…
After buying a ticket you have to pass through security to reach the platforms. Two electronic gates were staffed by a couple of smiling and continually wai-ing young ladies who asked to look in my camera bag. Once through I took another escalator up to platform level, which is staffed by Thais working for G4S (famed for their London Olympics debacle). Cross the yellow tactile tiles along the platform edge or lean on the platform barriers that separate it from the trac,ks and you’ll soon attract their attention via a sharp blast from their whistles! In truth they were unswervingly polite and helpful and simply carrying out their duties as instructed. Their was no objection to me taking photos and there’s no signs that say you can’t (unlike on the underground) so everything was fine. All 16 stations on the line follow the same basic layout. They’re all island platforms 6 cars long, although the concourse & ticket office arrangements vary by location. The vast majority of the route runs along the central reservation of roads of varying sizes, where there’s room everything will be built underneath the platforms and linked to the pavement via footbridges. Where the roads are too narrow ticket machines and gates will be housed on buildings adjacent to the pavement. Four of the stations (Khlong Bang Phai, Sam Yaek Bang Yai, Tha It and Yaek Nonthaburi) have huge multi-story park and ride carparks.
In 2013 the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand awarded metro concessionaire Bangkok Metro Public Company Ltd an 80·3bn baht 30-year contract to operate and maintain the route. This was divided into a 3 year construction phase before a 27 year operating phase. The contract also included supplying rolling stock and electrical and mechanical equipment. The 21 3-car trains were supplied by East Japan Railway train manufacturing subsidiary J-TREC (Japan Transport Engineering Company). In fact much of the line has been funded by Japan, with loans coming from an ODA loan. The M&E equipment has also been supplied by Japanese firms. This plaque at Klong Bang Phai commemorates Japanese involvement.
The whole length of the line is elevated, which makes for an interesting trip, not because it’s particularly scenic as most of the landscape is urban, but because it shows you how improved transport infrastructure has kick-started development. New multi-story apartment blocks are springing up all along the route. In many cases, older (say 20-40 years) low rise structures are being demolished to make way for them. Some of these are the traditional Chinese style shop-houses, others are derelict factory sprawl and a few are greenfield sites. Of course, unlike to roads it follows, the beauty of a trip on the metro is that you know exactly how long it’ll take.
Points of interest along the route are just beyond Bang Son the second station, where the line sails high above the existing SRT line to the South – and the new elevated light red line from Taling Chan, with its own station to the right. Although this metre-gauge line was completed some years ago, even running a trial service back in 2012-14 using existing SRT DMUs it’s been mothballed since January 2014 as it neither has new trains to run on it, or the new station at Bang Sue to run into!
There is one scenic part of the trip, which is when the line crosses high above the majestic Chao Prahya after Phra Nang Klao station before heading off along more main roads through suburban sprawl and new shopping centres. Shortly afterwards it reaches journey’s end at Khlong Bang Phai. The approach to which is signalled by an elevated line branching off to the right which runs into the lines new purpose built depot containing two long battleship-grey sheds. The nearest one is for stabling and cleaning whilst the furthest is for maintenance.
The 3-car trains that operate the line are rather swish. I’ve not been able to find any technical details of them (if anyone can point me in the direction of some I’d be grateful) but they follow the standard Thai pattern of having plastic longitudinal seats, a/c, CCTV, lots of standing room and plenty of grab-rails. They have open gangways and a PIS system that counts down the stations stopped at en-route. Here’s a look at them…
I’ve no doubt that once fully connected, and with all the new development that surround the line completed, the purple line with fulfil its potential. But right now is a good time to visit as it’s pleasantly quiet! Once this is completed, it will be a different matter…
New railway construction abounds in Bangkok. When I return later this month I’ll post an update on the construction of the new elevated ‘dark red’ line for SRT, the first section of which runs from Bang Sue, past Don Mueang airport to Thammasat University.
If you want to see more pictures from this series, as well as travel shots from my time in Thailand, follow this link to my picture website.