In Bangkok, it might be better to drive a car and get stuck in a traffic jam rather than take public transport. I decided not to drive because of our notorious and incurable congestion (regardless of who's the governor). Consequently, I have always relied on buses, taxis, subway and skytrains _ every day.
As a Bangkokian who uses the trains on a regular basis, it is apparent that our convenience and safety are probably not at the top of their checklist. Let me give you some examples _ they are nothing new, but you usually ignore them.
The Airport Rail Link (ARL) is the quickest way to get to the airport; it takes you from downtown (Phaya Thai) to Suvarnabhumi in only 17 minutes. Because of its speed, it has become well known to people who live near its stations, especially since it also offers a city line service.
Sounds great, right? Well, there are downsides. To begin with, while the ARL offers a train timetable, you might as well forget about it since the trains normally fail to arrive on time. The excuse I once got from a member of staff is quite memorable: "We lack spare parts, so we now have fewer trains operating." How comforting.
Secondly, most of the stations, except for Phaya Thai and the airport, are located in very odd places. For instance, if you want to switch between the ARL and the MRT subway system you must go to Makkasan station. The ARL and MRT stations are about 700m from each other, which means you have to drag your hefty luggage along an asphalt road, across a railway track and onto a sidewalk. No, there is no underground link or skywalk to ease your transition.
Walking may not seem much of a big deal when you read this, but think about carrying 20kg (or more) to or from the airport. It may not be entirely related, but a sad accident actually happened to someone while crossing the railway between the ARL and MRT.
It's been months now, but I still remember the story. Around June last year, a freshman-to-be travelled on the ARL and then walked along the street I just described, trying to reach the MRT. She didn't get there because she was hit by a train. Her story was in the news for a few days, focusing on how she was listening to a music player through headphones or was taking a call and ignored the approaching train _ but I have a different view. This could have been prevented if there was a skywalk linking the ARL and MRT stations, giving a safe route for pedestrians who would not need to access the road below.
This is something we have to think about long and hard. How long must we be at risk until a proper solution is found?
Lots of people are still crossing at the same place where the tragedy occurred, but by now everyone is starting to forget about it. We pay for the service, so surely we deserve something better. Even a 1% risk is too high for someone's life.
Let's move to my personal favourite. I know that writing about this will upset some people, so please correct me if I am wrong. The MRT has something I call "The Flashlight Ritual". When you walk through the metal detector gate and cause a "beeping" sound, it means that you are a potential threat, right?
It's the job of the security guard, of course, to verify that you are not a threat, but all they do is turn on their flashlight and "flash" around your bag for a couple of seconds _ and that's it. Somehow, they must have equipped their flashlight with a dubious GT200 bomb detector.
At Sam Yan station, for example, if you act busy, they'll just let you go without checking anything (give it a try but hurry before they improve). I felt bad when I saw a tourist at Phetchaburi station conscientiously opening every pocket in his bag, but the guard quickly waved him through. If they took security seriously, I wouldn't mind spending 30 seconds or so for them to check my stuff. That brief inconvenience would make me feel safer and isn't that the whole point of having a metal detector in the first place?
These public transport services need improvements to reach international _ or at least Asean _ standards. We, as Thais, should not condemn ourselves to accepting only a moderate quality service. Perhaps this is why our government gave us a chance to escape with its first-car policy; getting stuck in traffic is safer than risking our lives with the train.
Sithikorn Wongwudthianun is a photographer for the Bangkok Post.
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- Writer: Sithikorn Wongwudthianun