SRT offers a harsh lesson in failure
Here's a little bit of news for drenched travellers. What is probably the most expensive, cost-inefficient city airport check-in service in the world looks set to come to a close. And it's right here in Bangkok.
SRT Electrified Train Co has decided -- very sensibly, it would seem -- to draw the curtain on its city passenger and luggage check-in service at Makkasan station. Its demise will come after the firm clears its assets situation with the State Railway of Thailand. Hopefully, that will be sooner, not later.
SRTET has had to watch in misery the dismal performance of this service since its inception in 2011. Only 20 passengers are using it each month, while the company has to splash out around 7 million baht to keep the system running. Basically, it costs about 11,500 baht for each check-in, an extraordinarily high price to pay.
"The number of customers is relatively small which means it is not cost-effective to continue operating the service," admitted SRTET board chairman Gen Thawatchai Samutsakorn.
At one time SRTET had hoped Makkasan station would be a successful venture after noting similar business models in other countries. Malaysia uses Kuala Lumpur Central as a transport hub to connect the mass transit system and public transport in the capital, with an express train line to Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Hong Kong also offers check-in services for air travellers at several districts in the city. The business apparently runs well in these two countries, unlike the Bangkok operation.
The difference which seems to impede Makkasan is distance. Suvarnabhumi airport is not that far from downtown Bangkok compared to the airports serving Kuala Lumpur (57 kilometres) and Hong Kong (almost 40km by road). Worse, the station's location is not friendly for users -- it has no direct access to an expressway, and thus a way to avoid traffic nightmares. It probably takes more time for drivers to go from home to Makkasan than to the airport -- even though it is in Bang Phli district, Samut Prakan -- as they have to fight traffic on Ratchadaphisek or Ratchaprarob roads to get to the check-in counter. For those who want to get to the station by public transport, there are only a few city bus lines to take them there. The Airport Rail Link gets there from Phaya Thai station, but apart from that it is direct to Suvarnabhumi once travellers are aboard the train. No other stops.
"One reason is its location is in the downtown area and many passengers find it inconvenient to get through the traffic to the service point," the SRTET chairman said.
His next -- daunting -- task is to figure out what to do with the station itself. It was built in a spacious, modern design in the hope that it would become a busy, bustling station, with a variety of shops, and the main hub for linking the airport to the city. The location and poor planning in respect to public transport killed off that dream.
Many first-time users gave it up after getting a bad impression upon arriving at the station. Descending to the street, they found no taxis or buses to take them to their destinations.
Trying to get more people to use the station will be even more difficult than the decision to scrap the check-in service, unless the connection flaws are corrected. At least for the time being it is a regular venue for the Art Box market, but that is held on empty space outside the station building.
What has happened to the check-in service at Makkasan is symptomatic of the struggling operations of SRTET, a subsidiary of the SRT that was set up to show the public that the railway agency could do business instead of surviving on state subsidies. This is not turning out as planned, and the rail firm is now sitting on a pile of debt of around 30 billion baht, a figure that could grow exponentially in the years to come.
Part of the problem which condemns it to red figures in the balance sheet is business flops like Makkasan station.
The Makkasan station project could be a perfect case study for business students, which might be the only good thing to come out of it. It can show them the grandest of business plans do not always lead to a good result if there is no way to entice customers or if it leaves them with a bad impression.
Saritdet Marukatat is digital media news editor, Bangkok Post.
Digital Media News Editor
He is Bangkok Post's Online Editor and is in charge of all online content.