Final curtain call for grand old station

Final curtain call for grand old station

There is some debate concerning the fate of Bangkok's 105-year-old Hua Lamphong railway station which is scheduled to close at the end of the month. Hopefully a happy compromise can be reached with the station being preserved as a museum and its immediate area a public park. The State Railway of Thailand should also be given leeway to make itself some money, even if it means yet another mall.

They should not have any trouble finding material for the museum. Much of the current rolling stock is so ancient it looks as if it should have been dispatched to a museum years ago. The elegant station however, still stands out with its distinctive style designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno.

Although I have not used the station in recent years, there was a time it featured quite regularly on my itinerary. During my first few days in Bangkok in April 1969, I stayed at the Jeep Sing hotel just across the street from the station. At 20 baht a night it was rather basic accommodation, but I had experienced much worse during three months of back-packing across Asia.

Thailand still had steam engines in those days and being a railway enthusiast I would pop over to the station to watch the magnificent engines chugging off with a cheerful whistle to places I have never heard of and certainly couldn't pronounce. It was a wonderful sight.

Choo choo chat

I struggled with the pronunciation of Hua Lamphong in those early days -- and still do -- resulting in many weird and wonderful discussions with taxi drivers in my mangled Thai which invariably ended up with me resorting to embarrassing "choo choo" noises. Still, it was more fun than asking for Paddington.

It was hard not to feel a buzz of excitement when approaching Hua Lamphong as it usually meant a trip to somewhere new and exciting. There was always an element of uncertainty once you boarded because, being only a single-track system, there was a good chance you would spend more time than you might wish sitting in a railway siding in Nakhon Nowhere to allow another train through.

But it really didn't matter as long as you enjoyed yourself along the way. And in Thailand that was pretty much guaranteed.

A touch of spice

Hua Lamphong at that time was much more than a place to catch trains. It offered an introduction to a totally new culture. The concourse was always bustling with life. Every day hundreds of rural folks piled off the trains seeking work and with nowhere to go in the big city many would sleep there for days on end. They were easy targets for assorted shady characters who would offer them unappealing jobs. Some roamed the streets selling soft toys to tourists, while others ended up in grim back-street factories being paid a pittance and working horrendous hours.

The station's forecourt was also home to vendors, beggars and at night quite a few somtam ladies some of whom with maybe more exotic activities in mind than simply selling the spicy salad. There were plenty of street kids running around, all fluent in four words of English, "Hey you, one baht". Inevitably there were the stray dogs sniffing for scraps.

The omen

Thai railways suffered a wobbly patch between 2010-15 with a host of minor derailments. Fortunately there were few casualties because the trains were going too slowly to do any real damage. Nonetheless it became an embarrassment and prompted an in-depth probe.

The "probers" found the answer in unorthodox fashion. At the SRT's headquarters there was a 50-year-old painting featuring an ancient steam engine chugging its way out of Hua Lamphong. An eagle-eyed official noticed the painting had been damaged, with a small chunk of track missing, just like the real thing. To the superstitious officials this was clearly a bad omen and the painting was quickly restored. Sure enough, the frequency of derailments decreased dramatically after the painting had been spruced up.

However, some observers suggested the steam engine in the old painting looked in better shape than some of the diesel locomotives that were currently in use.

Runaway train

Hua Lamphong was the scene of a bizarre accident in 1986. Six diesel locomotives attached to one another were undergoing repairs at Bang Sue railway works when the first engine suddenly took off without a driver. Towing the other engines the unmanned train travelled eight kilometres before crashing into the Hua Lamphong buffers at about 50kph. Sadly there were four fatalities at the station.

Road to Nowhere

Exciting news, well maybe not that exciting. In the true spirit of the festive season, AsiaBooks has kindly reduced the price of my book The Long Winding Road to Nakhon Nowhere. It is now on sale for just 295 baht and would make an ideal present for those people who are not too fussy when it comes to literary matters. In fact it's quite a grammatical adventure and if you are lucky you may even spot an occasional dangling preposition.

The book relates my overland journey to Thailand in 1969 and experiences in those early years which these days seem a very long time ago. That's quite scary.

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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