Rail service on track to crisis
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Rail service on track to crisis

As the government seeks to expand the nationwide train network, a shortage of drivers threatens to derail any attempts of moving forward By Om Jotikasthira

All aboard: Station staff wait for arriving passengers as this train prepares for departure from Hua Lamphong station. The SRT says an urgent lack of staff that could set back plans for railway expansion.
All aboard: Station staff wait for arriving passengers as this train prepares for departure from Hua Lamphong station. The SRT says an urgent lack of staff that could set back plans for railway expansion.

'The government can build all the new railways it wants, but the wheels on the trains will never turn if there are no drivers to operate them," warns Yai, a State Railway of Thailand (SRT) train driver on the verge of retirement.

RAISING FLAG: A train conductor at Hua Lamphong railway station in Bangkok. The State Railway of Thailand (SRT) faces a lack of drivers as many retire. PHOTOS: Apichit Jinakul

The remark may be easily dismissed as a partial statement from a bitter employee -- the result of three decades of pent-up resentment from operating damaged, half-century-old train engines. But Yai's tone of voice suggests that what he's saying should be taken seriously.

Using a fake name for fear of losing his job and pension, Yai wants people to pay attention to an issue that he says the Thai government has neglected for nearly two decades now -- the real possibility that there may not be enough train drivers to operate the provincial train routes in the near future.

The SRT, a state enterprise under the Transport Ministry, has pushed for the construction of new provincial routes due to urging from Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha's military government to fast-track the expansion of the public transport network nationwide.

However, developments have suffered delays, with past orders in part to blame. A cabinet order from July 1998 -- one year after the Asian financial crisis left Thailand in colossal debt with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- states that the country must seek to decrease the overall expenses of the state railway operator. The order indicates the SRT can only hire five new employees for every 100 fresh retirees it has.

Nearly two decades after the order was issued, the SRT says it does not have enough employees to operate its nationwide railway networks. Officials and worker unions have pleaded repeatedly with the government to lift the order and let them hire more help.

When asked if the order plays a role in the SRT's panicked push to bring more train drivers on board, Yai nods wearily like he has had this conversation many times before.

"That's not the heart of the problem, though. Train operating is just no longer the job people thought it was," he says.


In his 35 years of working at the SRT, 28 of those have been spent operating trains, according to Yai. Train drivers must work as train mechanics for seven years before they can take the exams to be promoted to reserve-driver status. At least two more years are then required for reserve drivers to become the main train operators.

"It was originally a small dream of mine to drive a train since I always took them on my way to vocational school in my hometown as a youngster," Yai says, looking fondly at the locomotive garage at Hua Lamphong railway station.

"The odds were extremely low for me at the time I took the train operating exam. They were only going to take in 240 drivers out of 6,000 mechanics. But I guess the odds turned in my favour."

However, decades after his first post as a train driver, and around five years away from retirement, he says no one "in their right mind" would want to be one nowadays.

"The risks of the job completely outweigh the benefits, especially considering the fact that extremely old trains may break down at any time and result in accidents, which at times may not be the driver's fault," Yai says.

"I guarantee you that most of the drivers you see here will leave immediately if the authority offers them an early retirement option," he adds, pointing towards his colleagues in the lounge area.

According to Yai, several of the rural railways he travels on are poorly lit at night and the crossing gates can malfunction at times, adding further risk to people or animals traversing the tracks.

Procedure demands that SRT trains start slowing down around 1 kilometre before coming to a complete stop at a station.

The Transport Ministry recently released a statement saying no passengers travelling on its public transport network were killed during this year's Seven Dangerous Days of Songkran from April 11-17.

However, the ministry did report a close call on the last of the seven days.

A night sprinter train carrying over 500 passengers from Yala to Bangkok ran over a metal sheet on the railway tracks in Prachuap Khiri Khan's Kui Buri district at 2am on April 17, damaging each of the train's bogey undercarriages as it came to a stop at the station.

Authorities have been unable to determine if the incident was an accident or if the metal sheet was intentionally placed on the tracks. No casualties took place as the train was reportedly already preparing to stop. However, the impact of the bump frightened several passengers who heard a large scraping sound from under the train.

On March 17, another Yala-Bangkok train killed an elderly man who apparently refused to step away from the railway tracks in Prachuap Khiri Khan's Pran Buri district at 5am. The train killed the man on impact. The operator informed police that staff on the train honked the horn in hopes that the man would step out of the way but to no avail.

Train crashes involving livestock are common. A night train travelling from Chiang Mai to Nakhon Sawan hit and killed 21 buffalo in the Pak Nam Pho sub-district last December.

While no passengers were injured in the crash, parts of the train veered off track, causing significant delays in the northern railway network. The owner of the buffalo herd could not be tracked down.

"You never know how the resulting criminal cases from these accidents are going to go as a train driver," Yai says, admitting he has crashed into cattle before. "Each train has a black box to record its speed levels as evidence in case the driver goes over the speed limit, but another risk is that the driver may not get the benefit of the doubt if evidence does not add up."

"No one wants to have the thought of killing someone or something on their mind, but it is an unfortunate risk that this job comes with."


In his working hours, Yai says he usually gets enough rest to function.

The SRT train driver manual states that drivers can operate trains for no longer than six hours per shift. In an average shift, the staff would include one driver, one mechanic and two general staff members who check tickets and tend to passengers' overall needs. A supervisor is also deployed to ensure the train is in capable form.

For regular train service, operators typically pass their shift onto another team at provincial housing units based on stops along the SRT's network. Yai says there are two to three shifts per most trips.

Final checks: A train driver and mechanic do some final equipment checking at the train's controls.

fixer-uppers: The SRT's diesel-powered locomotives were bought for Thai railways from Japan, France and the United States, among other countries. Many of the authority's trains are over 50 years old.

The manual dictates that drivers and mechanics must arrive at least one hour before the train departs. The first half-hour of the trip is spent checking the locomotives for any flaws or possible malfunctions, while the remaining time is spent moving the vehicle from the main garage onto the tracks, where it will connect to passenger bogies.

Drivers must rest at least 12 hours between morning and afternoon shifts, and a full 24 hours for night shifts, before driving again.

"The general consensus here [at Hua Lamphong station] is that everyone gets enough sleep to operate the trains efficiently. But every place is different, and resting times vary depending on the type of train," Yai says.

"If you ask a train driver who regularly departs from Bang Sue central station, for instance, they could tell you an entirely different story."

Yai's statement proved correct. A train driver stationed at Bang Sue, who asked to be called "Ohr", 41, says he barely gets any rest when he assigned to the express train routes.

Now in his sixth year as a driver, following 13 years as a mechanic, Ohr says that many express train routes -- 10 of which the SRT runs daily -- do not operate on the same shift system as regular trains do.

Express train drivers are typically joined by a mechanic or reserve driver, with whom they rotate shifts. Each shift lasts four-and-a-half hours in which the person at the end of each shifts get a corresponding four-hour sleeping period.

"It's much more like a small nap than actual sleep," Ohr says. "After finishing my shift, it takes around half an hour for me to clean the gunk from the diesel fumes off my arms and face. The sleeping quarters are often not air-conditioned, and the ticket-checking staff normally wake us up around half an hour before our shifts resume.

"I generally never get more than three hours of sleep on the trains at a time," he adds.

Ohr says he has grown accustomed to the poor sleeping conditions, adding that express train drivers typically get a day's worth of rest once reaching their destination.

He did say, however, that the working conditions on the trains need to be improved since drowsy drivers are not fit to operate trains.

"During shifts, drivers are not allowed to leave the controls at any time, mainly because the locomotives are manually-operated, and there is only one driver at a time," Ohr says. "I've gone to the bathroom in bottles and even on newspapers.

"There's all this talk about SRT train drivers that they shouldn't complain because their salaries are high, but I've been working here for 19 years and my salary is only around 25,000 baht," he says.

"Monthly pay can get much higher for those who have stayed for longer under state enterprise rates, but physically, the job takes a toll on everyone."

Ohr says he now suffers from high-blood pressure from the locomotives' shaking motion, as well as hearing loss from the buzzing of the diesel engines.

He says this can explain why train drivers tend to speak in thundering voices -- often, they can't hear anyone else when they talk.


SRT reports state 1,187 train drivers and 884 train mechanics are currently registered with the authority. The ideal number for both positions is 1,258 employees each in order to operate its 234 daily passenger train trips and 40 cargo train trips, according to the SRT.

The State Railway Workers Union reports that an average of 50 to 60 train drivers retire per year, most of whom were required to retire after turning 60.

Union president Sawit Kaewvarn describes this rate as "alarming," urging the government to consider the fact that it takes several years to train new drivers.

"There used to be a six-month probation policy for drivers, but the case now is that anyone who passes the exams must drive immediately," he says. "Train operating exams do not occur on a yearly basis, but rather happen when authorities agree to conduct them, and this contributes to the present lack of drivers.

"The matter has to be addressed now, not after all the phases of railway development are complete," Mr Sawit adds.

Slowly but surely: Passengers get in line to purchase tickets at Hua Lamphong station.

SRT acting governor Anon Luangboriboon earlier said the authority's railway development plan includes the construction of new provincial train routes and adding tracks to existing routes to make them double-track networks. According to him, this will expand the SRT's nationwide reach from 47 to 61 provinces.

According to SRT reports, the group services around 35 million passengers annually, with the number expected to more than double to 80 million yearly passengers by 2027 when all of the expansion plans will be complete.

However, SRT officials say that some train routes could close down in five years' time if train drivers continue to retire at this rate.

The authority says its lack in ability to hire more staff has cost them huge losses in overtime payments for its current employees. Last May, a pay stub belonging to a station master operating in Pattani stating the employee was owed 100,000 baht in overtime payment was posted on social media, leading to public outrage.

SRT director for railway operations Araya Pinthadit says the authority found nothing wrong with this, explaining the station master had to work 401 hours in one month, or about 13 hours daily.

The statement shows the official worked 15 hours and 30 minutes of overtime for 21 consecutive days.

According to Mr Araya, the staff member was the only person working at the station at the time, and also had to often repair tracks in his area.

In addition to his 61,210-baht monthly salary, he received 102,271 baht in overtime payment.

Official statements released by the SRT state they need 18,015 employees to function effectively, but currently has only 10,305 working staff. It also states it hires around 4,000 employees on daily wages, usually at around 300 baht per day, to compensate for the lack of workers in its stations.

At Rangsit station in Pathum Thani master Siriphat Kansiri says his station has started depending on daily workers to issue tickets since they lack an average of one ticket vendor per day.

"The daily workers have to do several duties at once, from cleaning the station's bathrooms to switching rails," he said. "The bottom line is there must be enough staff to assist traveling passengers, regardless of full-time or daily employment."

Bang Sue train driver Ohr says drivers do not receive the same overtime rates as the authority forces them to work for a maximum of eight hours daily, including six hours of driving and a combined two hours of engine-checking.

One 55-year-old driver earns 60,000 baht per month. Ohr, who says he is on a 25,000-baht salary, says he receives around 56 satang per kilometre that he drives.

Employees hired by the SRT before 1999 are allowed to choose monthly or lump-sum pensions. Those employed after that year, however, are only allowed the latter option. Ohr says this is one reason train driving has deteriorated as an appealing job overall.

"I drive an average of 7,000km a month, but it's very hard to see anyone of the newer generation doing this," he says. "Some mechanics intentionally stay in their current positions because they believe the very slight pay rise [of a few thousand baht] is not worth the health and operating risks from actually driving the trains.

"Who can blame them?" he says.

ticket to ride: A conductor inspects a ticket as the train leaves Hua Lamphong. Trains often operate with one conductor who performs many duties.

short-staffed: Rangsit station master Siriphat Kansiri says his station lacks ticket vendors.

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