Shutting down Hua Lamphong not a bright idea
When was your last train trip to somewhere in Thailand? Maybe in the last decade or two? Or maybe you cannot remember?
I cannot help but think this is something close to Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob's thoughts when he decided to permanently close Hua Lamphong station this year, and divert all the trains to stop at the new Bang Sue Grand Station. Such a decision makes it clear the minister and his team of consultants are not fans of the train service offered by the State Railway of Thailand.
The minister wanted the closure to boost the number of users of Bang Sue Grand that was developed with a 30-billion-baht budget from state coffers, while Hua Lamphong is to become a museum.
He also cited the need to cut train services from Hua Lamphong because trains to and from the station cause traffic congestion in the city centre.
That claim would make sense if the minister were an investor who wanted his company to maximise profits from their latest project. But as transport minister, it's too bad he sees public transportation as a menace.
It's as if he has failed in basic maths or has an issue with logic. One doesn't have to be a mathematician or philosopher to understand this. Compare the same amount of space used by a train carriage and a line of private cars; a train carriage can obviously carry a larger number of passengers.
Once people started to complain, the minister ordered the SRT to find a solution. He also proposed that trains have access to Hua Lamphong only between 10pm and 4am daily, so the service will not interrupt city traffic.
I wonder how this could be possible when most of the long-distance inbound trains arrive in the city after 4am or even after 7am -- when not delayed. Should all these long-distance trains be rescheduled to facilitate his proposal?
A large number of Thais living in the provinces still depend on train services as many find that third-class train fares, without air-conditioning, are the only affordable option available. After arriving at Bang Sue, they won't be able to afford the new electric train tickets to get around the city.
In many developed countries, public transport is a service for all. In Paris, there are stations, namely the Gare du Nord for the northern route and the Gare de Lyon for the southern one. In Berlin, they have Berlin Central station, right in the centre of the capital, with four stations: Ostkreuz, Westkreuz, Gesundbrunnen and Sudkreuz on the East, West, North, and South of the city respectively.
These smaller stations are located in the outer parts of the city and often on a loop line. In Paris, one can access the inner city via metro lines. In Berlin, commuters can either access the city centre at the central station with the inter-city train or decide to get off at the outskirts and take a loop line.
This mobility pattern can be found in many metropolitan cities, including Tokyo where one can easily get lost in a train station because of its gigantic size and the large number of train lines accessing the city.
This reminds me of the impressive closure of the Kyu-Shirataki train station in Hokkaido in 2016. The train station had to finally close down due to low ridership. But the railway operator didn't abruptly shut down the service when they felt they needed to. Instead, the train waited until the last passenger, an 18-year-old student -- who had to commute to school 35 minutes away from home every morning and evening -- finished high school.
At the same time, the new Hokkaido Shinkansen -- the bullet train -- was introduced to the area. It was unclear if the bullet train would reach Kyu-Shirataki station, but at least the last passenger who needed the service was served.
But getting back to Bangkok, the transport minister doesn't even care how the commuters, as many as 20,000 per day, will be affected.
Do you believe that if the Hua Lamphong station is to close permanently at the end of this year as planned, Bangkok's traffic will improve?
If the state really wants us to enjoy the museum, I'd humbly suggest the SRT keep the diesel-engine train -- the exact type I first boarded during my high school years -- running.
For me, it's a mobile museum.
Every time I buy a train ticket, I can't help but feel excited, as if I was about to board a train into the past.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.