Old railway stations are slipping away

Old railway stations are slipping away

The platform of the old Khon Kaen railway station which will soon be demolished to pave the way for a two-storey structure to accommodate more passengers following a double-track route development plan which has been receiving heavy criticism from conservationists. (Photo by Parinya Chukaew)
The platform of the old Khon Kaen railway station which will soon be demolished to pave the way for a two-storey structure to accommodate more passengers following a double-track route development plan which has been receiving heavy criticism from conservationists. (Photo by Parinya Chukaew)

As Thailand is going ahead with its double-track train development plan, the first casualties of the development are the old railway stations across the country.

Under the development plan, almost all of the 443 old stations will have to go. Nearly half of the number, roughly 200, should be preserved as cultural and architectural heritage sites in the country, said Parinya Chukaew who teaches architecture at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang.

"It's a shame that the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) sees no value in those old stations, claiming that it has no budget, while the government pays no attention," he said.

One of the first stations to be sacrificed for the development is the main Khon Kaen station, the residential quarters of SRT personnel, and some 10 satellite stations on the Chira Road-Khon Kaen route in Khon Kaen Muang district. Under the plan, the main station will be torn down and replaced by a two-storey building while the train tracks will be elevated like the BTS in Bangkok. The head of Khon Kaen station, Sakarin Saeng-arun, told Thai-language media the demolition work would start next week and the construction of the new station would take two years.

However, the academic said Khon Kaen station, which has been operating for over 80 years, is one of the most valuable structures that should be kept. In principle, any building aged over 50 years is worth preserving.

From its physical condition, Mr Parinya said some may get the wrong idea that Khon Kaen station is not very original, as it has been modified over decades. But in his opinion, the station in question has high historical value.

"With the station, we know how the city has been developed and expanded as it is today," said the academic, adding that in the old days, the station was the centre of Muang Khon Kaen, which greatly expanded as the city prospered.

He said, technically speaking, it's possible to renovate the station, but there should be a careful analysis as to the details of which parts should be kept.

Moreover, some old structures used for steam trains still exist today at Khon Kaen station, including a water tank for when the trains made a stop to refill with water and firewood, he said.

Of high value are the houses belonging to SRT officials which are well-kept in a well-maintained environment, said Mr Parinya.

"We can say it was the first housing estate of the country some 80 years ago. Now each house is surrounded by big, shady tamarind trees in a serene ambience which will be all gone, and will be replaced by a modern shopping mall and a hotel," said Mr Parinya.

But without the station and the residential quarters, the city's history will be erased, he said. His campaign for the conservation of the old railway station which began two years ago received little attention from the state enterprise and the demolition is about to begin. Many will soon follow.

Yet, there are a few success stories over the years, due to local participation.

One of them is Sung Noen station in Nakhon Ratchasima where locals gathered and asked the then SRT governor to keep the majestic structure. The latter did so without hesitation.

So that one is saved, fortunately.

But some cases are still pending, like Phon Songkram station also in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Locals have sent a letter to SRT management, but there has been no reply and there are worries about sluggishness in the bureaucratic system which may make it too late to save the structure.

But what Mr Parinya learned from the Sung Noen case is that conservation is technically possible only if those involved see the importance and it's in the power of the SRT management to do so.

In the case of Khon Kaen, he said many locals appreciate the value of the structures and want to keep them but they simply have no idea how to convince the SRT. It's a shame the heritage buildings will be torn down and sold as piles of old wood, he said.

It's ironic the SRT is handling a project worth hundreds of billions of baht but has no budget for conservation. "It's a matter of ignorance."

But in this case, the government should step in, but it hasn't. "It's sad that the government has no idea about conservation either. If the government gives an order, the SRT will listen," he said, adding that as a national heritage site, the Culture Ministry's Fine Arts Department, and even the Tourism Ministry should take a look.

Ideally, he said the old railways should be left where they originally are and it's the architects' job to design a new structure to accommodate the old ones. "Technically, it's possible, and this is what other countries are doing," he said.

But if that practice is too costly, Mr Parinya said he also accepts the idea of removing the old structures and keeping them elsewhere, as in the case of Khon Kaen station. "It would be great if the old stations, after being renovated, are made use of, as a meeting place or office of the respective station, for example," said Mr Parinya. There is little, if any hope, as the SRT is not receptive.

The academic said he understands the need for double-track trains which will make our rail transport system more efficient and quicker. But conservation is also important and possible. Besides, he said people should know that it's not expensive to keep those structures and move them to other areas. "It costs about one million baht for each station. If we agree that some 100 stations must be kept, the total budget is 100 million baht," he said.

But as the state has no policy on this, the old railway stations will, sooner rather than later, disappear.

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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