Help is urgently needed from whoever gets a chance to be the transport minister in the new government to prevent Bang Sue Grand Station from being another white elephant which does not live up to its promise.
Passengers might feel a sense of loneliness walking inside the country's biggest train station, both during peak and off-peak periods, as it is sadly underused. And it might take several years to turn the misfortune around.
When the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) decided to build a new train hub to replace the ageing, iconic Hua Lamphong, the state enterprise agency aimed to make Bang Sue, officially known as Krung Thep Apiwat Central Terminal, a bustling transit centre in the capital.
One of the ambitions was to follow the success of Tokyo Station, which is one of the world's busiest train stations and makes money for Japan Rail. The SRT also planned to retire Hua Lamphong from duty and give it new life as a train museum or business establishment. It hoped that train travellers would forget the legacy of Hua Lamphong and be impressed with the modern, spacious Bang Sue.
Almost 16 billion baht was put aside by the government for construction of Bang Sue. Its 274,192 square metre space makes it the biggest train station in Southeast Asia, dethroning KL Sentral, a central station in Kuala Lumpur. "The station will serve all public transport connections, from trains to mass transit trains, high-speed trains and public buses," the government hailed the project, before the launch in 2021 for the Red Line, followed by long-distance lines in January this year. "It is built for seamless travel," it added.
Two years have passed and the new Bangkok station looks far from reaching that hype. Hua Lamphong served 200 inbound and outbound trains during its heyday but Bang Sue Grand Station services only 52 trains in both directions throughout the day, excluding the Red Line, which is filled with commuters during rush hour only.
What has gone wrong with the country's transport hub at Bang Sue? The problems show the SRT has lost touch with the reality on the ground and has planned things poorly.
The SRT was not living in reality when it planned to shut down Hua Lamphong and move all trains to Bang Sue. The plan to bring down the curtain at Hua Lamphong was met with furious protests from daily riders as commuters -- most of them middle- to low-income people, including students -- rely on commuter trains to get to central Bangkok during morning rush hour and return home in the evening. Terminating all trains at Bang Sue meant they had to pay for extra bus or subway rides to downtown. The public opposition forced the SRT to put on hold the relocation plan and decided to allow local trains to go all the way to Hua Lamphong.
Poor planning can be seen in long-delayed high-speed train projects. The railway agency hopes the arrival of bullet trains will fill Bang Sue with passengers. The SRT reserved 12 of the 24 platforms at Bang Sue for those fast trains and expected the first one, from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, to snake into and out of the station in 2026. With three more years to go, it will not be a surprise if the maiden service of the bullet train in Thailand is deferred as only 3.5 kilometres of the 250km line was completely installed as of February this year.
The SRT cannot leave Bang Sue Grand Station lifeless the way it is until high-speed trains finally arrive. Shops, restaurants and other businesses are not keen to come without more trains and more people using the station.
Bang Sue is already presenting the new transport minister with some homework to figure out how to make better use of the space and even make some money. What the MRT has done should serve as a good example: it turned the empty space at some underground stations into small shopping centres to lure customers.
The struggle at Bang Sue has reminded the public of the failed project at Makkasan. It was supposed to be an airline check-in service centre for air travellers using Suvarnabhumi Airport, but it finally ended up with nobody using it because of poor locations and dismal links with other public transport modes. Makkasan is now simply a huge yet empty station with few activities.
Bang Sue was built with a grand design to be the train station of the future but that will mean nothing until its use reaches capacity.
Saritdet Marukatat is a Bangkok Post columnist and former Digital Media News Editor at the paper. Contact Saritdet at email@example.com