For decades, commuters wishing to travel from the city's north to its east (and vice versa) have had to deal with bottom-clenching traffic jams on Lat Phrao and Srinakarin roads, two heavily congested roads which form the city's main north-east corridor. In 2005, in a bid to clear up some of the congestion, the Yellow Line was first proposed -- initially as a heavy underground rail service -- but it wasn't until 2012 that substantial plans to build it as a monorail link along the north-east corridor began to surface.
Since construction began in 2017, the project has faced numerous delays -- first, due to problems relating to land appropriation, and then when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, which meant the components needed to build the monorail weren't able to be delivered, and the few which were couldn't be installed anyway as manpower, just like raw materials, was stuck at the border.
For a good three years, the project progressed at a snail's pace, its pillars casting a dark shadow (and tonnes of dust) on the ever-worsening traffic jam below.
Then, last year, the pandemic ended as abruptly as it began, and the entire crew rallied to finish the monorail -- which brings us to Saturday, the long-anticipated soft opening of Bangkok's newest rapid transit line. Instead of fanfare, however, the monorail sparked furore, even before it was slated to open for a limited trial on Saturday.
Eagle-eyed netizens noticed that with the current design, commuters travelling on the Yellow Line who want to switch to the Green Line will have to get off the monorail at Lat Phrao station, and pay 15 baht to travel one stop on the Blue Line to Ha Yaek Lat Phrao station before they can get on the skytrain at Phahonyothin station -- an unnecessarily complex and cost-ineffective journey considering the Green and Yellow lines are only 2.6 kilometres apart.
As a result, for three straight days before the line was scheduled to open on Saturday, conversations on the topic of the Yellow Line concerned not how it will help save commuters time, nor bring economic opportunities to other areas in the capital which have been overlooked due to their lack of public transport access.
Instead, the design headache spawned negative headlines in both print and social media about how the Eastern Bangkok Monorail, the concession holder for the Yellow Line, might have to start work again, possibly just months after work had supposedly wrapped up, to fix the flaw.
The anger over the "missing link" is understandable, for a number of reasons.
First, the issue isn't something that Eastern Bangkok Monorail Company (EBM), as the concession holder for the Yellow Line, and the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTSC), as operator of the Green Line, have learned about only recently.
In fact, concerns about the missing link were first aired six years ago, prompting the project's stakeholders to commission an EIA on the hypothetically absent section between the two lines, which it passed.
What's worse, it seems discussion on the matter never progressed because of the opposition from Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA). That is because the operator of the Blue Line, another concessionaire, stands to benefit from the current need of a one-stop hop.
A study released by the Mass Rapid Transit Authority showed that if the missing link was plugged, it would lose about 4,800 passengers a day in the first year, or about 2.7 billion baht over a 30-year period. Blue Line earns 15 baht per Yellow Line passenger that transfers onto the Green Line in this way.
Second, this isn't the first time a hole has been identified in Bangkok's rapid transit map. Barely five years have passed since the public was similarly enraged by the lack of a connection between Bang Sue station on the Blue Line and Tao Poon on the Purple Line -- an issue that took years, not to mention a lot of financial resources to rectify. MRTA was forced to earmark dozens of buses to ferry passengers between the two lines (a distance of only one kilometre) until the link was completed, effectively turning the Blue Line into a loop line. However, that kind of a stop-gap approach won't work this time, given the longer distance and congestion along the way.
The EBM and the MRTA must come together because the problem runs deeper than a simple lack of communication and project planning between two partners.
These two examples also show how rules which were designed to include the public in infrastructure planning are still largely just for show. With more public transit projects currently under consideration, the time is ripe for the incoming administration to ensure all bases are covered and commuters must not be held hostage and forced to pay for more missing links in mass transit lines.