Flagfall issue dogs train network
In about a month's time, Bangkok commuters will have to add yet another travel card to their wallet if they want to access the depth and breadth of the city's public transport network, as commercial services on the State Railway of Thailand's Red Line are scheduled to open on Nov 1. With the launch of the Dark and Light Red services, residents living in the city's northern and eastern suburbs finally have their own modern commuter lines which promise to cut their time on the road.
Considering it took authorities almost 15 years to realise the services -- parts of the line had actually been finished since 2012 and saw limited services for about a month until they were scrapped -- commuters were delighted to finally get a ride on the tracks which they had heard so much about over the years. For most people, then, having to store another card may seem like a small issue.
However, this minor detail masks a major issue that characterises the development of the city's public transport network -- that is, while each line may seem connected on the surface, beyond the physical integration of the infrastructure, everything else is still very much managed separately, and dictated by sectoral interests.
The ultimate representation of this division, perhaps, is the BTS Asok/MRT Sukhumvit stations -- which are impossible to seamlessly pass through despite being located on top of each other.
Bangkok has toyed with the idea of a common ticketing system so much that not only does the system have a name (Mangmoom or "Spider", in the mold of Hong Kong's Octopus and London's Oyster), but over the past six years at least, City Hall -- under two different governors -- has, without fail, announced the imminent trial of such a system.
These announcements are typically followed by a sharp U-turn, often coupled with statements filled with corporate jargon which boil down to one thing -- that none of the parties are willing to come to a compromise for the sake of the public interest.
In fact, it seems that none of the parties involved in the negotiations -- which at the beginning comprised operators of the Bangkok Skytrain, Blue and Purple MRT lines and the Airport Rail Link -- were aware of the repercussions of the deadlock, and how it feeds into the negative loop which helps perpetuate the city's traffic problems.
Bangkok's rail network is becoming too expensive for its own residents, and part of the problem is the multiple flagfall that a commuter has to pay to complete a journey, as each concession-holder has the ability to set its own fares. While this isn't a problem for inner city residents, most commuter travel routes aren't confined to a single line.
Eliminating the multiple flagfall will undoubtedly attract more passengers to use the entire network, which would then benefit all concession-holders within the system. Unfortunately, instead of cooperating with each other to find ways to benefit everyone in the network, stakeholders are choosing to protect their share of the commuter pie -- effectively creating competition in which commuters are the only losers.
The fact of the matter is, while mass rail transport will never be as convenient as point-to-point travel in modes such as traditional taxis, commuters choose mass transport options because they are generally cheaper and more dependable -- if not more comfortable -- considering the state of the city's traffic. But in the case of Bangkok, this is quickly proving to be the opposite.
With ride-hailing services now ubiquitous across the capital, commuters can reach their destinations more efficiently by this means and more often that not, at a lower cost. Rail-based public transport systems, with their fixed physical infrastructure, can't adapt as quickly to mount an effective challenge, but this doesn't mean the entire network's operation and management can't be optimised.
In fact, this is the only way forward if Bangkok's rail transport network is to remain relevant among commuters. And without effective cooperation between the various stakeholders, Bangkok's electric train system won't be able to act as the backbone of the city's public transport network as City Hall envisions it to be in the future.
As the government plans to build more rapid transit lines across Bangkok, there is an urgent need to expedite talks on a universal ticketing system.
With three more lines expected to join the city's public transport map in the next five years, it will be simply irrational to charge a commuter at each transit point for a single cross-city trip.
All stakeholders must remember that another delay in implementing a common ticketing system, whether in the form of the Mangmoom card or not, will render the entire project pointless.
After all, even if the cards were to suddenly work overnight, it would be like entering a gunfight with a bow and arrow -- they would come at a time when the rest of the world is experimenting with contactless access and facial recognition. The time is ripe to play catch up.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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