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Friday, October 23, 2009
For a better train service, break the monopoly
Taking a train in Thailand is always a gamble. We know it is going to be late, but how late? Thirty minutes? An hour? The last time we took a train ride on a family holiday, it was four hours late.
We were lucky. At least it was only a gamble with time. Now a train ride has become a gamble with life, given the series of fatal train accidents in the past month.
Before, the worst we could complain about regarding the inefficient state monopoly of the train system, was the frustrating delays, the appalling toilets that dirty the country as far as the railtracks reach, the lousy food and the bumpy ride that gives us little sleep and tortures us with sleepiness all of the next day.
Despite these drawbacks, I was always happy to take my daughter on a train ride. Its slower speed allows her a much closer touch with the country's landscapes, the people, and the different local foods that train hawkers swamp us with throughout the trip.
That the countryside quickly comes into view after we leave Hualamphong also shows her how very small Bangkok is compared to the rest of Thailand, which should give my city-girl daughter a proper perspective of her own country.
True, it is more convenient to drive. But driving does not offer the sense of adventure and direct contact which the train does. The car provides us a private, comfortable cocoon where we can bury ourselves in the music so deeply that it dulls our other senses. The very speed of the car makes the world out there pass us by in a flash, which only heightens our sense of isolation and disconnectedness.
That is not the way we should travel.
That is not the way we should relate to the world where life and nature's laws are governed by interdependency and interconnectedness.
I also believe that the Thai trains help prepare my girl for her future life adventures. If she cannot tolerate the difficulties associated with a Thai train, how can she be ready to explore the world which offers more uncertainties - but hopefully with better toilets?
But from now on, I won't take my girl to travel by train any more. It is simply too dangerous.
We want some adventure, yes. But injuries and death? No, no, no.
When inefficiency has grown into life-threatening danger, we can no longer tolerate the dinosaur State Railway of Thailand (SRT) to carry on doing business as usual. Nor can we trust its fierce unionists to offer a solution.
The recent spate of train accidents have been caused by mismanagement, resulting in under-maintained locomotives, crumbling rails and an overworked staff, said the union. So they needed to go on strike out of concern for the passengers' safety, they claimed.
That claim rings hollow. They went on strike without any warning, without any consideration for the thousands of stranded passengers. But as soon as the government made it clear that it would deploy retired train drivers and railway academy graduates to fill the gap, the union agreed to resume train services.
What's going on here?
One thing is certain. Our railway system won't be getting any safer when you board the train tomorrow.
I have the luxury of talking about train discomforts as rare adventures because the trips are few and far between. But for the majority of train passengers, commuting in the chokingly hot and crowded compartments is a necessity. For those in the outlying provinces who need to commute to work in Bangkok, it is a daily necessity, meaning they have to risk their lives with the selfish and corrupt monopoly of the train system on a daily basis.
So what to do? There is still a way to get safe and efficient trains. But we need to break the state monopoly first. If not, the SRT management will get fatter and lazier, the unionists more irresponsible, and the train services ever more dangerous.
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