Hua Lamphong station celebrates its centennial and prepares for the retirement
On June 25, 1916, Bangkok Railway Station officially became the hub for Siam’s nine year-old railway system, linking trunk lines to the northern, northeastern, eastern, and southern regions of the kingdom. Workers broke ground for the grand terminal at the southeastern edge of Chinatown in 1910, under the reign of Rama V. By the time the station opened six years later, Rama VI had ascended the Thai throne.
Italian architects Mario Tamagno and Annibale Rigotti, who also designed the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, Bang Khun Prom Palace, Oriental Hotel, and Neilson Hays Library—among other well-known royal and civil monuments in Bangkok—designed the main structure in Neo-Renaissance-style. The vaulted iron roof and neoclassical portico were considered a state-of-the-art engineering feat at the time. The patterned, two-toned skylights below the roofline exemplify De Stijl Dutch modernism, representing one of the earliest examples of a shift towards Thai Art Deco that reached full blossom in the 1920s.
Today Hua Lamphong station serves over 130 trains and approximately 60,000 passengers every day, negotiating 20 platforms and 26 ticket booths. The station is also headquarters for the Eastern and Oriental Express, a luxury excursion train which plies between Bangkok and Singapore. Since 2004 Hua Lamphong station has been directly linked to the MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) subway system, allowing rail travellers the option of avoiding heavy traffic along Rama IV Road.
For decades, the station has acted as a small urban village used not only by rail passengers but also by neighbourhood residents, rural immigrants, and the homeless. Extensive facilities include shower rooms, an inexpensive food court, and a string of cafes on two mezzanine floors overlooking the terminal floor. A row of rustic barber chairs next to platform 12 is part of a hair-styling vocational school offering free haircuts to all comers. By 11pm each night, hundreds of Thais sleep on the floor along the wide porticoes of the terminal. In what was once a station hotel at the east end of the terminal, now home to SRT offices, a Muslim prayer room is provided, while nearby Wat Hua Lamphong offers a Buddhist place of worship.
To prepare for the its platinum jubilee—held appropriately on Saturday, June 25th, 2016—State Railway of Thailand Governor Wutthichart Kalayanamitr presided over a yearlong facelift for the venerable railway station, including a fresh paint job, a roof extension to provide more shade for commuters, and an extensive cleaning of the iconic colored-glass arch which illuminates the passenger terminal. All trains and platforms also received a thorough scrubbing for the occasion at the hands of community volunteers.
Four historic steam engines, rolled out from their usual home at Thonburi’s Bangkok Noi Railway Station and parked at one of the central platforms at Hua Lamphong, served as main attractions for the thousands of Bangkokians who turned up for the 100th birthday party. The oldest attraction—steam locomotive number 715—was built in Japan in 1935-37 and brought by Japanese troops during their WWII occupation of Thailand to serve along the infamous Death Railway, which was meant to link Thailand and Burma, and was built with tens of thousands of conscript labourers (including Allied prisoners-of-war) at great loss of life. Maintained in near-mint condition, this locomotive is still used periodically for special rail trips between Bangkok and Nam Tok, a small terminal beyond Kanchanburi towards the Myanmar border.
A vintage-style sit-on-the-ground market assembled along the station platforms, offering all manner of regional Thai dishes for the day. Thai musical and drama troupes performed for hundreds of festival goers on a huge stage erected inside the passenger terminal. A host of temporary museum-style displays in the main terminal chronicled Thai railway history with historic photos and accompanying text.
The centennial was the last such celebration before the terminal ceases operations as the main hub for the State Railway of Thailand. In 2015 the SRT announced that 80-90 percent of trunk rail services will run out of the new Bang Sue Railway Station in northern Bangkok by 2019.
The venerable Hua Lamphong station will be converted into a railway museum under the SRT’s four-year renovation plan, although a few platforms will remain in use for tourist services, according to railway officials. I’m sceptical as to how this would work out, but let’s see what happens in four years’ time.
Next to undergo renovation will be the diminutive Chitralada Railway Station, which stands alongside Chitrlada Place and has historically been for the exclusive use of Thai royals. Officials announced recently that after the renovations are complete, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakkri Sirindhorn and her entourage will enjoy a train trip to Kanchanaburi.