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)