Tuesday, 5 February 2019


As I'm leaving Singapore, the last stop on my 3-week Asian tour, I want to write down a few notes about its quite excellent urban rail system. But as Craig M. has provided a very extensive report in 2017, I will use that as a starting point and simply add my comments where necessary.

I did not ride the entire system, but almost, as I stayed for 5 days, which besides the typical tourist visits gave me enough time to explore the rail system, too.

Unfortunately, my first impression of Singapore was rather negative, in fact it kind of ruined my first day, because I was very annoyed about how they receive visitors. Landing at T1 of the huge Changi Airport, I made my way down to the MRT station, which is a quite long walk and requires a people mover. Once at the station, the frustration began. The manned ticket office's window was full with posters saying "The Singapore Tourist Pass is not sold here. Go to T2 etc...", next to it another unfriendly paper saying "Single tickets are only sold at vending machines". As I thought it is too much hassle to make my way to T2 and search for that single outlet, I wanted to buy a single ticket to get to my hotel, but confronted with the machine I found more of these posters "Cash only!" But as a recently landed tourist who has just drawn cash from a machine, the only cash I had were 50-dollar notes, which the machines wouldn't accept, of course. So after all I started walking to T2, up the wrong escalator to Departures, down again, and up another escalator to Arrivals, where I found one of these booths saying "Travel cards". After some minutes wait, I was told that the normal Tourist Pass is not sold there, just the Tourist Pass Plus, and they wouldn't know where the other one was sold. So desperate, I got this 3-day pass for SG$ 38.00 (some 26€) because I couldn't be bothered any longer to search for a simple day pass. By the way, the Tourist Pass Plus which is supposed to give you special deals, is a complete rip off, wasn't useful anywhere. But at last I could get on the train and ride towards the city - well, just for two stops, because then you have to change trains at Tanah Merah. At least it is an easy transfer, as the airport shuttle pulls in between the two regular trains, so cross-platform interchange is possible in either direction, but being pissed off by the ticket troubles, I only thought that this is another way of non-appreciation of visitors, why can't they have every 3rd or 4th train run directly to the city centre? They will have their reasons why they discontinued the through trains after just one year of opening the airport branch, but if other cities build metro lines specifically to serve the airport, why does Singapore offer this type of service, which by the way, is not too clear on the East West Line - on all platforms the destination (3) for Changi Airport is shown although there will never be a train for that destination. Printed maps now have a little note, but I missed this on the maps posted in stations.

Later I noticed on my photos that there is a little hint on the signs that a change of trains is required to get to the airport.

Now let's start with Craig's report from March 2017 and you will find my comments added as [Robert:....]

Singapore is a small densely-populated city-state, having a land area of only 719km², and a population of 5.6m (2016). It has achieved strong economic growth over many years due to its role as a major financial/services hub and centre for high value manufacturing – the rising affluence bringing increased demand for available land and greater mobility. With finite space, the Singaporean Government is alleviating these pressures through the implementation of a long-term, overarching transport policy, led by the Land Transport Authority (LTA). The LTA is responsible for the planning, development and management of the entire land transport system in Singapore and so, with regard to the MRT, a broad overview and strategic policy direction has been implemented through a three-pronged integration approach:

The integration of land use and transport planning. The LTA has intensified land use across the island by decentralising commercial activities along rail corridors, integrating MRT stations into commercial facilities, and creating transport hubs which act as a focus of housing developments. Intensifying development around main MRT stations reduces the need for travel and increases the utilisation of the MRT, enabling the rail network to develop routes that serve the most densely populated areas and corridors, linking the population to the main commercial, business and industrial areas and trip generating points.

Network integration
The MRT is the backbone of the transport system in Singapore and has a hierarchical role, with LRT and bus services planned around MRT services. MRT and LRT stations are physically integrated to main bus stations which provide feeder routes. These routes are planned so that the duplication of services is limited and there is improved utilisation of transport resources and more effective coverage. The co-ordination of services also involves timetable integration, an integrated fare system (EZ-link card - distance-based contactless smart card), and integrated travel information via an impressive GPS/RTI electronic travel guide with full journey planning and fare information, or hard copy information (TransitLink guide). All this is achieved despite different ownership.

Almost perfect integration between the two metro companies, but this sign only shows SMRT lines.

Standard integration
Service standards and performance are set and rigourously monitored by the LTA and the quality of provision is an essential ingredient. Supplementary provision such as pedestrian linkways to housing and adjacent commercial buildings, cycling and taxi facilities, intermediate and end-point commercial amenities, customer service centres, uniform station information and wayfinding, and safety (barriers/CCTV etc.) are all at forefront of design, construction and operation. Capturing performance is made easier because the government has managed transport competition. Essentially, two multi-modal operators exist – SMRT, which mainly operates trains and a small bus network and one LRT; whilst SBS mainly operates buses as well as two metro lines and accompanying LRT lines. This structure provides the benefits of competition in terms of peer benchmarking in service standards and cost efficiencies, but enables easier service and policy integration.

This approach provides the population with high quality mobility options and a spectrum of seamless transport choices to accommodate varying travel needs. The harmonisation of services, brand and information makes travel by public transport efficient and effective. Whilst this approach is common in Europe, it is not the case in Asia, where mobility is often based on sheer volume than any planning protocols. This makes the Singapore experience all the more impressive and successful, supported in many ways by a dominant government and relatively obedient population.

The System
The MRT is operated by two companies (SMRT-129.8km) / (SBS-40.1km) and is currently 169.9km in length with elevated (68.7km) and underground (101.2km) alignments. There is a total of 103 stations.
[Robert: 7.5 km for the Tuas Link extension and 21 km of the eastern leg of the DTL have to be added after opening later in 2017]

SMRT Lines
The original 1987 line now forms part of the arc-shaped North-South Line (NS) which is 44.7km (12.3km underground) and has 26 stations (11 underground). It runs from the western industrial area of Jurong on viaduct, initially travelling north through less densely populated areas and connecting to the parallel Bukit Panjang LRT at Chao Chu Kang [Robert: a connection not announced accoustically on the train I came in from Woodlands!]. At its northernmost, the line travails large satellite towns around Woodlands (where views of the city of Johor Bahru in Malaysia can be seen), and then moves south down the central north-south spine of the island. Here it runs past the huge stabling facilities at Bishan. The stations on the viaduct section are large, concrete, angular structures with island platforms [Robert: some have gable roofs], half screens and large ceiling fans. There are smart platform information boards with line maps and system maps, some seating and RTI information screens. South of Bishan (the only grade station on the system), the line runs underground passing the main commercial corridors around Orchard Road and through the city centre. These stations have island platforms, with full platform screens and good quality passenger information [Robert: on these older lines with their long platforms I often found that there are not enough next-train indicators, I think only one along a 160m platform!]. The infrastructure is clean and efficiently designed with ample stairs, lifts and bi-directional escalators, although the design is pretty standard, and the stations are very much of the 1980s [Robert: some like Newton or Toa Payoh have a real German U-Bahn 80s style with their orange and yellow panels!]. Services run from 0530 to 0030 with a base headway of 4/5mins and three of every four trains terminate at Marina Bay with only 4 services per hour heading onward to Marina South Pier [Robert: I went down there during afternoon peak and quite a lot of trains continued to the end and still carried some passengers, but when I got off, that most of these, mainly clever women, rushed across the platform to grab a free seat in an empty departing train; otherwise the huge station complex was pretty void of passengers!]. The entire journey takes 63mins.

Info outside station at Marina Bay

At the most central stations of City Hall and Raffles Place, there is cross-platform transfer with the East-West Line (EW) depending on which direction you wish to travel; the tunnels here dive, rise and twist between the two stations to ensure all transfer possibilities are met effectively. The EW line is of a similar standard to the NS line. It is 49.7km (13.4km underground) and includes a branch from Tanah Merah to Changi Airport (6.4km). Including the branch there are 31 stations (8 underground). From the large eastern satellite towns around Tampines, the line runs above the busy New Changi Road/Sims Avenue where there are some nice views of the dense urban environment. The stations on this section have vaulted ceilings, supported by arch pillars. The island platform areas are very similar to those on the NS line. The airport branch involves a change of service at Tanah Merah, a two island/threeline station, with the middle line for the airport line shuttle supporting cross-platform transfer, regardless of direction. This branch runs at 5min base headways on its 9min journey and after the modern Expo station, it heads underground to the large and architecturally stylish station at the airport. Continuing on the main line, after Kallang the line heads below ground through the centre (cross-platform transfer with the NS line) in a southwesterly direction before a sharp bend north-westward (and lots of flange noise) at Tanjong Pagor. After Tiong Bahru, the line again emerges to viaduct above Commonwealth Avenue. These stations are more angular and have elevated walkways from the pavement areas - these are, perhaps, the least impressive on the system. Cross-platform transfer to the NS line is also possible at Jurong East station, a multi-platform large station with an impressive flying junction and some intensive train movements from the east. Beyond Jurong East the line continues on a viaduct through less dense areas to the western terminus at Joo Koon, from where a 7.5km extension to TUAS West/4 stations will open in 2017 [Robert:... and it did in October of that year - at Gul Circle, the two tracks are one on top of each other, with a huge station prepared for future cross-platform interchange, possibly for the Jurong Region Line or a branch? Every other westbound train terminates at Joo Koon.]. As with the NS line, there are good headways and a peak hour service level of 2min frequencies really pushes the system to capacity, with many trains stopping between stations due to train congestion and bringing some irregularity to headways. This is the longest line on the Singapore system and takes 64mins to traverse.

Info in four languages: English, Chinese, Bahasa & Tamil

The two lines share 6-car stock. These have been built at various times by Siemens (Wien), Kawasaki and a Kawasaki/CSR partnership. There are some differences in external and internal appearance between the various constructions, but all have high levels of cleanliness, information provision (strip maps/audio information) and side seating. In some cases, seats in the middle part of the carriage have been removed and more grab poles added to increase capacity. Strip maps above the door have electric lights to show progression and there is written information provision in English, Simplified Chinese, Bahasa [Robert: Malaysian for non-linguists...], and Hindi (Sanskrit) [Robert: should be Tamil], although audio information on station stops is in English only.
[Robert: some new or newly refurbished trains had TV screens above the doors - making the door height lower so I sometimes banged my head... these screens show all sorts of information, also a station layout with exit locations, escalators etc., but it changes so quickly that it is impossible to read that fast!]

Info screen above doors on newer rolling stock

[Robert: On the two older conventional lines, i.e. those with a driver on board, there seems to be no ATO system supporting their work, as they stop very carefully to match the retrofitted platform screens doors or half-height gates in surface stations. Sometimes you can tell how experienced the driver is, while some seem to hesitate and then slowly push the train forward a few centimetres - reminded me of London's Jubilee Line before ATO was switched on and drivers had to match their side window with a coloured field painted on the platform. According to Wikipedia, both lines have been upgraded even to CBTC recently, then it is either badly programmed or frequently switched off to practice manual driving.]

Although these two MRT lines are the backbone of the system, they are more than ably supported by three fully automated metro lines. The SMRT-operated Circle Line (CC) is 35.4km long with 28 stations and takes 62min to travel. Services run from 0545-0030 and operate at 5min base headways. The fully underground line is currently the longest underground automated line in the world (soon to be surpassed by the Downtown Line) and it covers some of the more peripheral areas of the built-up part of Singapore. Running from the centre at Dhoby Ghaut, the line heads in a semi-circle via Paya Labar and Bishan to the Dover area and down towards HarbourFront.

Service pattern for CCL branch to Marina Bay

At Promenade station (see Downtown Line), the line splits toward Marina Bay (2.1km branch/7mins) with 1 in 4 services operating this leg [Robert: except for peak hours, the Marina Bay branch is now operated as a shuttle from Stadium]. It is a medium capacity line using 3-car Alstom Metropolis sets. This line has several architecturally distinct stations with high atrium-style platform areas providing a very airy environment and space for large art pieces. Platforms have seating, smart information boards, full platform screens and RTI. The highlights on this line, against much competition, are ‘Stadium’ and ‘Bras Basah’, two of the most stylish stations in South East Asia.

SBS Lines
SBS operate the majority of bus services in Singapore and also operate two fully automated metro lines and two LRT lines. The North East Line (NE) [Robert: I have always been irritated by the fact that the NEL is spelt by SBS just like the East West Line and North South Line, where the two separated words show that the lines goes from east to west and from north to south, but the NEL does not run from north to east but towards the northeast - but most of our English friends don't take spelling too strictly either.] is a 19.2km fully underground line heading from the harbour through the western areas of the centre toward the northeastern satellite towns around Punggol (33mins). It has 16 stations and is the only line in Singapore to use overhead power supply for its Alstom Metropolis stock with its quite ugly interior frontages [Robert: I saw at least one which had also a transparent middle window like DTL and CCL trains].

Mind the gap: After listening to it again and again, the first sentence I learned in Malay!

This is a very speedy and smooth ride, operating from 0545-0000 with 4min base headways. The platforms, like those of the CC line have a large atrium style which are located below smart ticket halls, all are island platforms and at certain stations some liberties have been taken with the design to allow for art/individuality to be presented (Kovan/Houghang are good examples). The last two stations in the northeast connect with the SBS LRT lines and this is where most of the footfall in the northeast lies, because of this, Sengkang and Punggol are designed more for capacity than style although they are still impressive. [Robert: But compared to the newer CCL and DTL, the NEL now appears a bit dated especially when looking at passenger information inside trains, there is only a static strip map above the doors with no line progress indicating, and the next station is only shown on an old-fashioned LED indicator in the middle of each car!]

The DTL's eastern terminus dedicated to the metros of the world!

SBS also operates the Downtown Line (DTL). This is the latest addition to Singapore’s urban rail system and, once it reaches its full length out by the airport area, it will be the longest line on the system. Currently, the 20.9km fully underground line (17 stations) [Robert: now 42km with 34 stations!] runs at 4min frequencies from Panjang Hill in the northwest, where there is lengthy, barriered transfer to the Bukit Panjang LRT line via a bridge and ramp, and heads in a southeasterly direction toward the city centre at 4min intervals. There are some examples of fine stations on this line both internally (mainly island platforms) and in the immediate external environment. Stevens has separate side platforms with barriered transfer to the other platform. At Newton the line connects to the NS line and is the only ‘metro to metro’ interchange to involve a barriered transfer (free if re-entering the system within 15mins) [Robert: The only reason for this I can assume is that this way the mezzanine level can be left open as an underpass to cross the street]. In the centre, the DT Line serves the newer tourist/corporate developments around Bayfront (cross-platform transfer to the CC Line) and Downtown [Robert: the station is not really what one would consider the city centre, but serving mostly new office towers, more like a CBD], and at Promenade station (CCL/DTL) there are four separate single platforms located on four different levels with separate escalator access to each platform. The line uses Bombardier Movia stock which offers station information in all four languages and not just English. [Robert: the most distinguishing feature of the DTL has to be added here: this is a line which loops around the city centre and crosses itself, but without a station at that point. So if you are moving just for a few stations within the "downtown" area, you have to look carefully which direction you need to travel as otherwise you might go on an additional 20-minute ride in a quasi circle! I can't remember a similar case on any metro in the world! But all in all the DTL is a great achievement and somehow has been built and opened without much noise, while the much shorter NEL had been in the press worldwide much more, probably because driverless metros were then still something new and exciting. And now in the making is the equally long Thomson-East Coast Line! And the Cross Island Line has been announced.... By the way, on the DTL, the screens on the platforms display how full each car of the arriving train is using traffic light colours (I didn't ride in peak hours to see it in red)!]

DTL: Better take the rear car which is less crowded!

Like the proper metro, LRT services in Singapore are operated by both SMRT and SBS (note that, although branded as LRTs, these can be considered People Movers) [Robert: I absolutely agree that these are long people movers, but have nothing to do with what we otherwise refer to as 'light rail']. The SMRT Bukit Panjang Line (BPLRT) connects to the NS line at Choa Chu Kang where both stations lie parallel to each other. Here, the LRT arrives at a single line/two side platform halt with passengers alighting at one side and boarding from the other platform. It is 7.8km (14 stations) long and runs at a 5min base headway (although the Ten-Mile Junction branch is served only three times per hour [Robert: service to this station discontinued as of early 2019!]), utilising two types of quite ugly Bombardier Innovia stock with rubber tyres. These trains have misted windows so that passengers cannot see into the apartments located next to the elevated line. It takes approximately 30mins to complete the loop with quite basic arch-roofed stations, short side platform and perfunctory barriers with gaps where the train doors open. The line is not that well used at non-peak periods [Robert: it was when I travelled it in late morning] except for the joint stretch between the two metro stations it serves, but the infrastructure is impressive and the views of the dense housing areas is interesting.

The remaining two LRTs are operated by SBS and are run perpendicular to the last two stations on the NE line. The Sengkang LRT (SKLRT) comprises an east and west loop converging at Sengkang. This is a large station located directly above the NE line station. Both loops have a combined length of 10.7km with 14 stations. Sengkang has an island platform with both loops served on either side, dependent on the direction. Trains are single Mitsubishi Crystal Movers although two car sets operate at some peak times. They have no direction boards on trains but their service is identified by the platform screen which stipulate the next train as ‘East’ or ‘West’ Loop. The service on each loop takes approx. 15mins and there are some great views with long straight avenues of dense housing and commercial buildings. The loop stations have island platforms (no platform screens) and quite basic seating and information provision. Like the Sengkang LRT, the two Punggol LRT (PGLRT) loops (10.3km/13 stations) operate independently, although the western loop only operates anti-clockwise at the moment. This particular loop has two unopened stations, although the automated trains stop at these stations momentarily. At the northernmost station, Punggol Point, there are some interesting views across the narrow stretch of water to Malaysia. Punggol itself is a large station with angular roof, housed directly above the NE Line station mezzanine. Services on each platform are identified as ‘East’ or ‘West’ Loop and there are signs to tell you to make sure to get the correct train. The stock is identical to the Sengkang LRT, with busy services at the initial stations of each loop. Both these LRTs have quite short distances between stations and some impressive track infrastructure. They are used for intra town provision but mainly act as feeders to the NE line services. [Robert: there is an uncompleted stub track coming in from the northern side at Punggol, not sure what that was meant for.]

As for using the system, well this is very simple. Station entrances are conspicuous across the city, with many of the underground stations having several entrance points. All have stairs and escalators from street level, whether underground or elevated. [Robert: I think Singapore's MRT logo is a bit too decent, it does not really stand out in the streetscape, neither does it really suggest anything. I'd prefer a real logo along with renaming the whole system from MRT into Metro to join the rest of the world. What I do appreciate, though, are the numerous signs you can find all over the city centre directing you to the different stations!]

Signs like this can be found all over the city!

Ticket machines are easy to use and individual tickets can be re-used. Tap barriers provide access to the system and all stations have information centres where a folded map is available. As most stations on the system have island platforms wayfinding is easy and location maps, beautiful schematic and geographic maps, along with RTI information are plentiful and stylishly designed on platforms and entrance halls. All of this is provided via a very smart brand with a typeface (LTA Identity) designed especially for the system. On the system, stations are identified by name, but also line initials and number (e.g. Khatib NS14) and in addition to staff in the ticket hall, there are smartly dressed staff on platforms to assist passengers. There is surprisingly little advertising on the system. Generally, in Asia, urban rail is used to its full potential for advertising purposes but it has been deliberately kept to decent levels here. [Robert: I do not agree with this statement. I actually found that there is too much advertising and that often it is difficult to filter the real metro signs from all these ads, often even illuminated.] Most promotions relate to the government and encouraging communal values and good citizenship.

Two examples of over-advertising.... though the green advert is an exception!

Tickets are distance based and are less expensive if you have an EZ-Card, moreover, to lessen crush loads at peak times and aid mobility for certain elements of society, MRT services are free before 0730 (you tap your EZ-Card but no fare is deducted). Day tickets are available but these are in the form of a Singapore Tourist Pass with 1,2 or 3 day validities. These can only be purchased from Transitlink Ticket offices (located at main stations only) only and not from SMRT machines (see below).

Beyond SMRT/SBS there are two other little bits of rail provision in the city-state. The Sentosa Express is a straddle beam monorail running from the top of the Vivo Shopping Centre (HarbourFront CC/NE station is located in the basement of this shopping centre) to the tourist island of Sentosa. [Robert: I must have missed some sign and then found it very hard to find in this huge shopping complex.] It is 2.1km long and has 4 stations. The monorail is owned and operated by SDC, and a day ticket costs $4 (although EZ-Cards are valid). [Robert: well, in fact they only charge you when you join the train at this station, the rest is free access; so you could walk across along the Sentosa Boardwalk and jump on the monorail at all other stations, even to come back to the shopping centre.] Hitachi trains run every 5/6mins as a base headway from 0700 to midnight on the 8mins journey. [Robert: unfortunately, this is yet another pathetic monorail! Very little capacity, but huge driver's cabs at either end although the line is operated driverless! why does it need to be streamlined if it travels at low speed anyway. So better avoid at weekends!]

Secondly, at the airport there is a land side and airside people mover system which uses the same Mitsubishi Crystal Movers as the SBS LRTs in 1 and 2 car sets. Known as the Changi Airport Skytrain the series of short lines (air side and land side together accounts for 1.2km of track) connect the three terminals at 2min headways from 0500 to 0230 (outside of which a bus service is provided). The stations are recessed into the terminal building and are well signed, with full screens and RTI. The landside service between T2 and T3 has been closed as the walkway between the two terminals (which includes the MRT station) has made this part of the service redundant.

Overall, the urban rail system in Singapore is fantastic. It is integrated well between the two operators, and the system is pretty seamless with all MRT lines offering transfer to all others. It is a very stylish system in most parts and is well branded and has long been a system at the forefront of innovation and style. With a mix of alignments, high service levels, quality stations, different modes, ease of use and broad coverage this is one of the finest systems in the world. Yet despite this, there are some shortcomings and deficiencies. Firstly, the system is a victim of its own success. The government has produced a splendid system, but with it comes increased passenger demand and some real line capacity problems at peak hour where there can be delays and resulting irregular headways, much to the irritation of the demanding Singaporeans. The other flaw is that the day ticket is operated by EZ-Link and not the transport companies. As such its purchase is limited to specific (and very busy) ticket offices at only a few stations, it is valid from the day of purchase (if you arrive late in the day, as many do in Singapore, then it is of little value), purchase is by cash or Mastercard only (no Visa/Amex) and there is a $10 deposit required. It really is quite an overcomplicated procedure and I wish a basic day ticket/24hr ticket could be offered by SMRT/SBS and be purchased from ticket machines. What makes this all the more frustrating is that it is not really like the rest of the system which operates so seamlessly. [Robert: this completely confirms my own frustration as described at the beginning of this post! It is impossible to understand why a supermodern system like this cannot offer day tickets in an easy way, also showing visitors that they are welcome. Another option, and maybe even easier to implement, would be a daily capping on the EZ-Card the way the London Oyster Card does. About the weird $10 deposit, I can only assume that the card allows you to add extra value like with a normal EZ-Card, so the $10 would be like a real deposit! But then, why can't you just load a day pass onto a normal EZ-Card?]


Singapore at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map and many links)

Singapore Line by Line Photo Gallery

Saturday, 19 January 2019

BANGKOK - Urban Rail Impressions

I have just been to Bangkok for two days on a winter escape trip to Southern China and Southeast Asia, areas I haven't been to before. I haven't published any blog posts about the metros in the first three cities of my trip, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, because our friend Craig M. had contributed his views on the website and there is not much to add really.

Green Line starting its southbound service at Mo Chit

But now in Bangkok, I thought I should write down some thoughts while I'm sitting at Don Mueang Airport waiting for my flight to Kuala Lumpur.

I have to admit that Bangkok did not conquer my heart, neither as a city (loud, polluted, anti-pedestrian, difficult to move from one place to the other and except for some fanastic tourist sites not really a 'beautiful' place). But as usual, I'll limit my observations to the public transport system and especially urban rail.

Riverboat on the Chao Phraya River

Well, to start with, Bangkok doesn't really have a transport "system", it rather has an endless choice of different offers which are as badly integrated as can be. There are two metro operators (well actually three if you count the airport line as metro) which at least announce that at certain stations you can interchange with the other metro. But no sort of integrated ticketing has been achieved yet, not even a single stored-value card which could be used on different modes (apparently the have been working on this, but as of now, it does not exist). 

BTS station Asok, with a hint to interchange with MRT

Either metro system is of limited use for the typical tourist, as none goes into the older part where most tourist attractions are located (this will change finally in 1-2 years with the extension of the Blue Line). If you count shopping malls as tourist attractions, then BTS station Siam serves them well. The rest of the public transport "system" are many buses hard to understand where they go, but that's always a problem in a foreign place, but the worst thing about the buses is that many of them seem like 50 years old and throw out extreme clouds of exhaust fumes. They usually have all windows open, and all doors too. Another airy option are the tuk-tuk taxis and for the brave ones, you can hire a motorbike taxi, which you can recognise by the driver's orange vest waiting at every street corner. Many locals arrive on them at metro stations. And not to forget the riverboats which are a nice way to approach the city centre for the first time with the "Orange Flag" boats starting northwards from Central Piers next to Saphan Taksin BTS station. Try it from here for a seat, because as a standee you won't be able to see anything as they are covered.

Typical bus still frequently seen


The BTS Skytrain is the older of the two metro systems. As of now, it is entirely elevated and thus provides you with great views of the city, but only if you're lucky - they are either very packed and you have no view through the crowd; they mostly carry full advertising wraps, so the view through the already small windows is restricted; or if you're too tall, even the tiny door windows are too low - so try to ride during off-peak hours and find a seat in an area not covered with adverts, more likely at the ends of the train.

Downtown Bangkok: a shrine next to the bi-level Skytrain (all wrapped in adverts)

So, while the Skytrain is a swift way to travel through the commercial parts of the city, it is certainly a real eyesore, a significant 20th century architectural sin. How can a city allow to have its main roads distorted that badly by this elevated concrete structure, which around Siam, the core of the city, is like a 5-storey building, with its double-deck track viaducts high above the road. And while it is extremely ugly, the Skytrain stations mostly require you to climb rather steep stairs from street level, with only some escalators and lifts being available. In many places, the "mezzanine", floating above the road and under the platform, is accessible directly from adjacent buildings and shopping malls. And along the central section, a skywalk beneath the tracks connects Siam with Chitlom stations.

Elevated walkway flanked by Skytrain at junction west of Siam

Once on mezzanine level, you can buy tickets from machines (coins only) or a ticket window, which also sells a 1-day pass good for just the two BTS lines, but worth it if you want to explore the entire system. Single journey tickets can add up quickly if you use the trains several times. Single tickets also come on a plastic card which like tokens in China have to be tapped at the reader when entering the system, but inserted into a slot on leaving (as it looks nice with a map on it, I got me a 16-baht ticket as a souvenir...). Security control is less strict than in China, but you have to walk through a screen, the security guy looked into my bag only once. Directions are signed well up to the respective platforms (mostly side platforms with views from ends), but on the platforms there are generally no information screens telling you how long it will take for the next train to arrive (I only saw them at Mo Chit). 

Typical side view of an elevated station - here Chong Nonsi, with the BRT in the far background

Busier stations have been retrofitted with half-height platform gates with incorporated screens, but these only show adverts and eventually that the train is arriving. People line up in a Chinese way as marked on the floor, and this works quite fine, but the multiple queues obstruct the island platforms at Siam where cross-platform interchange between the two lines is heavily practised. Here one notices especially those dispatching guards with their whistles getting very nervous when you get too close to the gates as if they could fall down if you lean on them, very annoying indeed. I was thinking of getting a whistle myself and echo their stupid commands to drive them crazy. They did not interfere with photographing, though, so in the end, I tried to be patient with them.

Once inside the train, the ride is smooth, the air-conditioning strong, and the train probably pretty packed. Above the doors, there is a strip map, but not on all trains showing where you are. Somewhere halfway between doors there is a TV screen with adverts, but with the sound put on as if there was a radio playing loud all the time. Very annoying again for us noise-stricken people. Other annoucements are also frequent, but not as continuous as in China.

Kheha - southern terminus of the most recent extension

The lack of information screens is apparent at Samrong station, which acts as the transfer station between trains operating the main line and shuttle trains operating the recently opened southern section every 10 minutes. Some say this is due to rolling stock shortage, but when I rode that line, it was far from busy, so a 10-minute headway seemed adequate out there. So while Kheha trains shuttle from the outbound (eastern) track, the Mo Chit trains reverse on the inbound track, so people just change to the other side of the platform.

A funny situation can be observed, of course, at Saphan Taksin station, which is single-track and cannot be expanded as it is flanked by car ramps leading to the bridge shared by the metro. Built as a temporary terminus it was kept opened when the line was extended across the river, luckily, as otherwise the riverboats would be difficult to reach.

While the BTS trains are quite spacious, the service feels inadquate on the central sections. Altough platforms were built for six cars, still only 4-car trains are used, but hopefully they will be extended one day, or that additional short workings reinforce the headways on the north-south line which will even get busier in a few years when the long northern extension is added too.

View from my hotel room with the Silom Line reversing beyond National Stadium station, the viaduct ends just off the right edge of the photo

The Silom Line has the major flaw that it ends at National Stadium, too far from the old town. At least a 2-station extension in the same brutal way would easily be possible, even fitting under an elevated expressway, but this probably has to wait until the future of the old railway line to Hua Lamphong has been decided upon.

BRT - tiny bus with single door

Actually a part of the BTS system, the Bangkok BRT is yet another travel option (with a special 15 baht flat fare). But luckily the intention to building more such lines was given up as the first line is about the biggest waste of public money one can imagine. As a "real" BRT, it has special buses (with doors on the right side) and high-level platforms), and for most of its length even a dedicated lane, however, towards the western end, buses get stuck in general traffic. The buses, especially built for this line, are especially inadequate, as one would expect from a dedicated busway to offer some high-capacity service and not a bus every 15 minutes with a very limited capacity (despite having high platforms, the room inside the bus is ridiculous, and the the motors seem inadequate for any sort of service. The automatic gear change makes them crawl up to the bridge across the river at 20 km/h, and you just hope they don't come to a stop as they wouldn't be able to proceed again. So why would one build a dedicated infrastructure which in the end carries just some 30 people maximum every 15 minutes. Its integration with the BTS Silom Line at either end is also far from convenient, the signed path at the western end, at Talat Phlu, actually leads to some dirty wasteland under an expressway (better to use the other route via a more southern footbridge).

Huai Khwang - typical underground station on the MRT Blue Line


The visual impact issue has certainly had an influence on the design of the second metro system, referred to as MRT. Also known as the "Blue Line" (a term I did not see very often, though), the first line was built completely underground following wide streets. Built with platforms ready to take 6-car trains, it still uses only 3-car trains, and honestly, I haven't seen them very busy, so there must be something wrong in this line's alignment. One would expect that any line would become busy straight away in a city which is comparable to Greater London both in size and population and with only the BTS and MRT systems offering a metro service! Although cheap, this lack of usage must be because of its poor fare integration. The MRT no longer has a day pass, instead I got a stored-value card sold at 180 baht with an 80 baht deposit included. The patronage of the Blue Line will hopefully increase when it is finally extended through the southern parts of the old town and under the river out into the western districts. At its northern end it has already been extended to Tao Poon to link up with the Purple Line, with its first elevated station. From here, a long elevated western extension has already been largely completed, so soon it will become a sort of circle line. 

At Hua Lamphong, some columns were specially clad for the King's presence in the opening ceremony

The existing underground stations are hardly worth mentioning regarding their designs, they all look o.k. but without offering any appeal. Later I noticed that each station has a different colour ribbon above the platform screen doors and around columns. Most platforms are quite wide, and given the little patronage the seem oversized. Luckily Thailand Cultural Center station was built extra-large as the future interchange with the orange line, which will run through the vast mezzanine.

Future Orange Line station at Thailand Cultural Center

The newest line is the Purple Line, which is part of the MRT system and has joint ticketing with the Blue Line, with no ticket gates between the two lines at Tao Poon. This line is the most state-of-the-art you can find in Bangkok, with all sorts of visual information you'd expect of a modern system. It has a strong purple branding to it, both outside and inside of trains and on all signage. I do not understand, however, why this line was given the priority to be built. It must be that it mostly runs outside Bangkok proper through Nonthaburi, and they had a special lobby to get it built. Its future central section running parallel to the river on the side of the old town, would probably be much more urgently needed, but will certainly be more difficult to build. Now it runs through changing suburbia offering seats for everyone who wants to ride it (could be different during peak hours)....

Purple Line train at Talat Bang Yai, a shopping area incl. IKEA


Actually the first train I encountered after landing at the newer of the city's two airports, Suvarnabhumi, is the airport train operated by SRT, Thailand's national railways. There used to be an express service with in-town check-in, but that was discontinued in 2014, apparently noone used it, no wonder as the slightly slower service is extremely cheap, just 45 baht, which is not even 2 €. The special airport express may come back one day as a direct link between the two airports, the second one, Don Mueang in the north, being served soon by the new Dark Red Line (viaducts and stations along the route seem mostly completed). At Suvarnabhumi, the way down to the station is well signed, and you can get your ticket (i.e. a token you swipe on entry and insert into a slot on exit) easily from the counter. The ride is smooth and air-conditioned, but as the short 3-car train provides a suburban service too, it fills up, and arriving at Phraya Thai I saw large crowds waiting to get on. Interchange at that station with BTS is not very convenient, be prepared to carry your luggage down some steep stairs, the BTS station is the easier to access.


UrbanRail - Bangkok (incl. more links)