Rangsit community up in arms over Red Line construction

Rangsit community up in arms over Red Line construction

SRT acted after being pressured, but for residents the damage is already done.

A train enthusiast, national artist Suchart Sawasdsri never expected to one day to be in conflict with the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) until the recent arrival of the Red Line.

Four communities in Lak Hok, Rangsit will be cut off if the SRT pushes ahead with its original plan to build barriers and facilities for its future Lak Hok MRT station — which will act as a wall between the communities and the main road. Apichit Jinakul

When he relocated his home to Rangsit's Lak Hok area some 25 years ago, the writer fell in love with the century-old wooden-structure train station and the peaceful surroundings, largely made up of canals and lotus plants. Today, he calls the place "paradise lost".

As urban development stretched to Rangsit in the last few decades, the canals were replaced by roads and the original train station was demolished to make way for a state project that never came.

Then, two years ago, Mr Suchart and 300 other families welcomed the arrival of the MRT's Red Line (Bang Sue and Rangsit), that will connect them to inner Bangkok. For communities in Lak Hok, the railway has always been a preferred choice of transportation and much of their daily lives was built around the existing set of tracks.

However, the MRT line will come with a major catch: a 2km-long security fence, running between Lak Hok and Khlong Rangsit Prayurasakdi stations which would be built between the communities and the main road — acting like a wall that prevents them from accessing the main road.

Suchart Sawasdsri

“This is absolute nonsense,” Mr Suchart slammed. “The SRT rushed through its plans but never took local residents into consideration.”

According to the SRT's original plan, four communities — Decha Pattana 87, Sukkasem, Sin Samut and Decha Pattana — will likely be affected by the designs and deprived of road access after the barrier is built.

The fence, now indicated by a cord, is set to be built just yards away from the houses, located right in front of the communities.

Since the project's inception, public hearings were few and far between, Mr Suchart added. The writer, who attended one, saw few other residents in attendance and found the information they were given to be largely unclear. When designing megaprojects, policymakers, engineers and planners need to consult residents first, he said. The SRT skipped this process entirely.

In mid-2015, Lak Hok residents petitioned the SRT through Rangsit municipality. They demanded that the railway authority consider building a 6 to 8-metre road along the railway line, as well as a bridge connecting both sides of the railway and to provide locals with access to the future Lak Hok station.

They were met with a stern refusal — a letter, signed by the SRT governor last July, plainly stated that none of their demands would be approved. At the time, locals felt no particular rush. After all, the MRT project would take another three to four years to be completed and residents thought they had ample time left to negotiate for access to the road.

However, the standstill only lasted a few months. Locals became alarmed in January, when Italian-Thai Development Plc, hired by the SRT, suddenly began road work, in preparation for the barrier's construction.

Workers came knocking on residents' doors, warning them to remove their cars, as the road would no longer be accessible.

“When they came to my house, I was speechless,” said Mr Suchart. Although he does not own a car, the order left him feeling bitter.

Building the fence is a necessity, SRT governor Wuthichart Kalyanamitra told a meeting on Feb 12, attended by local officials, community representatives and the Ombudsman, Gen Viddhavat Rajatanun, whom locals petitioned to help them resolve the conflict.

“I have to admit that the communities will be severely affected by the barrier,” Mr Wuthichart said, adding that he had already inspected the site. However, he insisted that the fence must be built for security reasons, as the railway will be electrified and the high voltage could cause injuries.

In a spectacular U-turn, the SRT governor agreed to several of the residents' demands at the meeting called by the Ombudsman. The bridge across the railway tracks and access to the station, which Mr Wuthichart once refused to build, were promised to locals on that day.

The construction of the barrier was also temporarily halted, as the SRT conceded that it would study the possibility of building a road. The railway authority is expected to issue a reply at the end of this month.

Locals are wary and will remain on tenterhooks nonetheless, as many received the news with mixed feelings. The meeting was the first time Lak Hok residents had talked with the railway authority in two years. If they hadn't petitioned the Office of the Ombudsman, the SRT would never have listened to their demands, argued Pirom Painkep, the Decha Pattana 87 community leader.

“I'm more or less satisfied with the meeting's outcome but our most important request isn't secure yet,” said Mr Pirom. Providing locals with access to the road is crucial, he argued. Community residents shouldn't have had to negotiate in the first place.

During the meeting, the SRT governor suggested that the railway authority purchase a privately-owned land plot at the back of the community and turn it into a road rather than amend its original plans.

However, locals fiercely opposed the idea, deeming it impractical. The communities on both sides of the existing railway tracks interact closely, Mr Pirom explained. The elementary school is located on one side, while the middle school and high school are on the other. Locals are accustomed to crossing the tracks each day, to go to the market or the temple, he said. Exiting the communities from the back would require that they take a detour.

The owners of the 14-rai land plot the SRT is eyeing will never want to sell it, Mr Pirom argued. It would take a long time to find an alternative if the railway authority refuses to budge.

The SRT's apparent unwillingness to leave the road to residents — although there is ample space to fit both the MRT railway and the existing path — led locals to believe that the railway authority is saving the land plot for future projects, such as a high-speed train and a standard-gauge railway.

For Mr Suchart, it is out of the question that locals would have to follow the governor's new proposal. The SRT should have carried out more thorough studies prior to designing the barrier, rather than asking residents to adapt once problems have surfaced.

“They should have thought about the communities first, not plan everything above our heads and then force it down on us,” he added.

Other railway projects are planned for the future although their construction remains unclear, said the artist, who waited a decade to see public transportation reach his home.

“We don't know whether they will take place, but the people in these communities, we're all still here in the meantime.”

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