Matty Dyas Takes a Closer Look at the Future Shape of the City’s Transport System
The paradox: “Transport is the only development sector that worsens as incomes rise. While sanitation, health, education and employment tend to improve through economic development, traffic congestion tends to worsen.” So writes Michael Engelskirchen in his Sourcebook on Sustainable Transport. It’s hard to disagree when you look around and see supercars, songtaew, taxis, buses, bikes, pick-ups, and tuk tuks trundling bumper-to-bumper along the Bangkok’s clogged arteries. But in 15 years, maybe it won’t be so bad. That’s when the city could (and should) be the proud owner of a rail system promising change at the fabric of its being.
According to the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning (OTP), the average speed of a car during the morning rush hour was 15km per hour last year. Another study by the Thailand Future Foundation revealed that the average commute took three hours. But it’s not just about making it to work at a reasonable hour (or getting to the restaurant on time to secure the table you’ve booked). The Asian Development Bank suggests clogged traffic in developing cities could eat as much as 2-5 per cent out of the GDP each year due to time lost on journeys and higher transport costs. In other words, our city could very well be siphoning from its own tank.
Most recent figures from the OTP suggest there are around 7.5 million cars registered in Bangkok—by census data, almost 2 million more cars than people (the registered population stands at 5.6 million). Some ideas for rectifying the problem are admirable, others questionable. For one, proving to a car dealership you own a parking space before being able to buy a car, a plan put forth by Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra at a forum on city traffic management. Or another, adopting Singapore’s cost-prohibitive measures to car ownership.
But as Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, put it, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.” Will Bangkok’s proposed train system be good enough to lead the wealthy to the light rails, or will the morning and nightly commutes merely swell as the roads remain packed as ever?
Currently, Bangkok has around 84km of track operated by three different companies. There is, of course, the Skytrain operated by Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTSC), which spans 36.3 km across 35 stations along Sukhumvit and Silom and sees as many as 700,000 passengers a day. There is also the MRT operated by Bangkok Expressway and Metro (BEM), covering 20km, and the 28.5km of the Airport Rail Link run by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT).
Proposals expect railway length to increase to 495km over the next 15 years, with 13 sprawling under- and over-ground lines, a spider’s web of accessibility covering every corner of the city. Fittingly, then, the Transport Ministry has named its new fare card the Mangmoom, or Spider Card. To be up-and-running around August2016, this “all in one” card will at last allow commuters to use one card to access the BTS, MRT, and Airport Link. Better still, the Ministry hopes to include minivans, river boats, and buses in the service—eventually even allowing it to be used to make payment in shops, much like the Octopus Card in Hong Kong.
What’s proposed now and what 2030will entail could be two entirely different things. Take the “Hopewell Project” for example, the planned elevated highway and rail line from central Bangkok to Don Mueang International Airport, dubbed Thailand’s Stonehenge. Just 10-13 per cent complete, the concrete frames mark a failed trail north. What remains today is a sad snapshot of work started in 1990, then suspended in 1992, and cancelled altogether in 1998.
Then there is the issue of linking the new lines with the existing ones. Surely, billions of baht wouldn’t be invested in a new train line only for it to never connect to an existing line, right? Unfortunately, that’s exactly the issue bogging down the new MRT Purple line, where the terminal Tao Poon station will be detached from the existing Bang Sue MRT stop, meaning it will require an additional journey on a shuttle bus to travel between the two.
Even when a new line has been confirmed, it can still hit snags. Presently, residents of Pracha Songkroh in the Huai Kwang district are in disagreement about plans to run the Orange line through their community, a plan that could result in the upheaval of 1,000 families. A back-and-forth between angry residents and the Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA) has stalled construction efforts since 2014. The latest in the situation has seen local residents presenting three other construction options to the MRTA. If the MRTA doesn’t heed their demands, the community plans to take the Authority to court to seek an injunction against any eviction. The residents may also sue the Authority for damages. This whole debacle spells costs and delays.
Affordability is also a concern. Fares for the new Purple line range from B14-42, but then a separate fare of B16- 42 will have to be paid to use the unconnected Blue MRT line. That could mean B84 to get from Khlong Bang Phai at one end of the Purple line to Hua Lamphong on the existing MRT line. With the minimum wage currently at B300 per day, that’s a costly commute for those who can’t afford to live downtown.
The case can be made that it’s actually the wage issue that needs to be addressed rather than the fares; however, even with the existing Sukhumvit and Silom lines, it nearly always works out cheaper to take a taxi than to use the BTS when there is more than one person involved.
Apart from all the statistics, beyond the “ifs” and “buts,” what will it actually mean if the planned mass transit network comes to fruition?
Certainly those on the periphery of the city will be able to travel more freely, while those in the city can escape the Silom and Sukhumvit “walls” without diving into the familiar traffic jams. Nonthaburi will likely reap the rewards of a more sophisticated network system, thanks to the MRT Purple line’s opening in August. Once there, a short hop over the river is Ko Kret (a fine weekend destination, especially for those looking for an idyllic slice of nature and a few glasses of Chit beer). Plus, there’s the dazzlingnew Central Plaza Westgate located at Bang Yai.
The MRT’s Blue line extension will make life simpler for those wanting to soak up a bit of culture, with Museum Siam, Pak Khlong Talad, and, of course, Chinatown, all within easy reach.
Meanwhile, the extension of the Sukhumvit line makes bike trips in the Ancient City (Mueang Boran) in Samut Prakan, or a day-trip to the Erawan Museum, more convenient than ever.
Long term, we can look forward to easy ventures to the likes of messy-and-modish Bang Lamphu, thanks to the extension of the Purple line. And getting to MOCA, Impact Arena, and Don Mueang will be less stressful by taking the Bangsue-Rangsit Dark Red line (expected to be completed in 2019).
The End of the Line
The train is approaching the platform. Now is Bangkok’s opportunity to fashion a transport system it can be proud of. A successful network requires coordinated efforts, as well as integration between new and existing lines. The Mangmoom Card will be a huge plus, as long as it can be combined with discounts for students, the elderly, and lower income commuters—even a better rate for weekly/monthly packages would be a good start. What’s more, well-thought-out park and rideschemes in the suburbs need to be implemented to offer a viable solution to driving into the city, thereby truly easing congestion (that’s the goal, right?).
If it can be done—the big “if”—the new train systems could facilitate truly positive change. 2032 marks the cities 250th birthday. Wouldn’t it be great if everything is running smoothly by then?
Glossary of Acronyms
Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning (OTP)
Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTSC)
Bangkok Expressway and Metro (BEM)
State Railway of Thailand (SRT)
Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA)
Train Line Summary
Dark red line – Hua Mak-Bang Sue – Thammasat Rangsit Campus
Light red line – Taling Chan-Bang Sue – Hua Mak
Pink line – Khae Rai – Minburi
Orange line – Taling Chan-Thailand Cultural Centre – Minburi
Yellow line – Lad Phrao – Pattanakarn – Samrong
Sukhumvit line – Mochit – Saphan Mai – Khu Khot, and Bearing – Samut Prakarn – Bang Pu
Silom line – Yotse – National Stadium – Saphan Taksin – Bang Wa
Purple line – Bang Yai – Bang Sue – Ratburana
Blue line – Hua Lamphong – Bang Khae and Bang Sue – Tha Phra – Phutthamonthon Sai 4 Light Blue Line – Chong Nonsi – Makkasan-Pracha Songkhro
Grey line – Rama 9 Bridge – Thong Lo – Watcharaphon
Brown line – Nonthaburi Civic Centre – Sammakorn
Extended Airport Rail Link – Phayathai – Bang Sue – Don Mueang