River ferry stays afloat despite dangers

Recent horrific events on our waterways have not dampened the enthusiasm of ferry passengers

Thousands of commuters are prepared to risk their lives every day on the Chao Phraya, managing to banish the haunting memories of several fatal accidents over the years.

The memory of the 1995 incident in which 30 people were killed when Pran Nok Pier collapsed into the river came flooding back for many after last Sunday's accident involving a tourist ferry that capsized and killed 28.

The tragedy of the boat crashing into an underwater concrete flood barrier has served as a wake-up call on boat transport safety, but there doesn't appear to be dramatic change in the wind.

The chartered boat in last Sunday's accident, the Sombat Mongkolchai Tabtim, was a 1967 registered ferry, with a recommended passenger load of 50. According to news reports, the boat was carrying more than 150 passengers at the time of the accident. The helmsman, Wirat Chaisirikul, 68, has been charged on four counts including causing deaths by negligence and failure to renew the boat-driving licence.

River transport in Bangkok is busy in the section of the Chao Phraya River from Pak Kred to Sathorn, with the Chao Phraya Express Boat service moving around 40,000 passengers a day. The service running in Khlong San Saeb canal connects the eastern suburbs with the central area and moves about 50,000 passengers a day.

"We've seen a bit of a dip in passengers lately, though I think it's more due to the fact this is the rainy season," said an employee of Sathorn Pier, one of the central piers of the Chao Phraya Express Boat that feeds commuters to the Saphan Taksin BTS skytrain in the rush hours.

"There have been several passengers who have asked about the safety regulations of our boats, but that's pretty much the extent which the accident in Ayutthaya has had on us."

Naowarat Rodsa, the manager of Sathorn Pier, said officials from the Marine Department will generally be stationed at each pier in Bangkok to regulate passenger numbers and boat driving conduct (the Marine Department declined to give an interview).

Ms Naowarat said there are two sizes of boats commonly used by the Bangkok Chao Phraya Express Boat service: Larger, twin-engine boats capable of carrying up to 120 passengers, and single-engine boats capable of carrying 90.

Each boat has life jackets correlating to the number of passengers.

"Sathorn Pier welcomes many tourist passengers, so the Marine Department is especially strict when it comes to safety regulations," she said. Ms Naowarat also mentioned that, aside from daily alcohol checks in the morning, Bangkok Chao Phraya Express Boat drivers must also display their boat licence, as well as their own boat-steering licences for passengers to see.

"Unlike Bangkok ferries, which take several round trips up and down the river daily, Ayutthaya ferries tend to head out only a couple times a month, which is probably why the department isn't as vigilant with their inspections as they are for Bangkok piers."

The department's figures show the number of boat accidents has fallen gradually, and most take place at sea. In 2007 there were 36 water-borne accidents, 24 in the sea and 12 in the rivers; last year there were 15 incidents, 12 in the sea and three in the rivers.

But the memory of the worst Chao Phraya accident still haunts river commuters: In 1995, more than 100 people were killed when Pran Nok Pier collapsed into the river.

On the whole, water accidents in inner Bangkok are not common, though the authorities cannot afford to be complacent. Last month, the department announced a plan to upgrade 17 Chao Phraya boat piers to improve safety standards and service.

Tikamporn, 21, a college student, relies on the Chao Phraya Express Boat to get to and from university every day. While she admits that news of the accident in Ayutthaya has raised concerns for her, she has no choice but to rely on the boat service as it is one of the few modes of transportation that allows her to avoid city traffic jams.

The third-year student also mentioned she feels the pier employees tend to be a little lax when it comes to regulating how many passengers are allowed on board each boat.

"As scared as I am for my safety, especially after hearing about the accident, there's simply no better choice in terms of both price and efficiency. If I had any other choice, I'd go for that instead of the ferries in a heartbeat," she said.

Roxy, a 31-year-old backpacker from South Africa said: "Personally, I've never had a bad experience with the ferries, so I'm not really concerned about safety at all," he said.

"The fact it's so down-to-earth, maybe even a little dangerous, is exactly what makes it an adventure, so I do enjoy my boat rides with a bit of risk."

Meanwhile, Darwut, a veteran steersman who has taken boats on up to six round trips on Klong San Saeb every day for the past 20 years, said accidents like the recent one in Ayutthaya, as well as the gas explosion in March that injured more than 60 passengers on a Klong San Saeb transport boat, are "bound to happen every once in a while".

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About the author

columnist
Writer: Kanin Srimaneekulroj
Position: Reporter