Trains in Thailand: Repairs desperately neededBy Casey Hynes Sep 20, 2013 7:59PM UTC
The Thai government is finally taking steps to address the problem of train derailments in the country, by suspending rail service to the northern city of Chiang Mai for 45 days. The suspension began earlier this week, and during this period, workers will make repairs on old tracks and trains that desperately need upgrading.
The Bangkok-Chiang Mai train journey is highly popular among tourists, who favor the backpacker-friendly northern city. The Bangkok Post reported that there have been 13 derailments on the northern tracks this year, and 114 accidents in the country overall so far in 2013. The derailment of a southbound train at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station earlier this week highlighted the problem as the suspension and repairs got under way.
State Railroad of Thailand officials have said that 2.8 million Thai baht will be put toward repairs of tunnels and particularly problematic tracks, and the service to Chiang Mai is expected to resume by Oct. 31. In the meantime, trains will terminate at Sila At train junction in Uttaradit, and free shuttles will be offered to travelers bound for Chiang Mai from there.
Anyone who has traveled the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route knows that at the very least, you should prepare for delays. This author has made the train journey and arrived two and four hours late on different trips. In July, 23 people got far worse than that when a Chiang-Mai bound train from Bangkok derailed in Phrae province, with seven out of 10 cars flipping on their sides. The accident was blamed on old tracks that were in disrepair.
The faulty train system in Thailand highlights infrastructure problems in other areas as well, and illustrates the unnecessary risks of long-distance travel in the country. Alternatives to the train include buses and flights, though the latter seem to be the best bet in terms of safety. The train and bus are good options for being budget-conscious, but the risks seem to outweigh the few dollars saved. Frequent bus crashes attributed to overworked, speeding drivers should be heeded when opting for this inexpensive mode of transportation.
SRT governor Prapat Chongsanguan acknowledged a decrease in confidence in the rail system, according to the Bangkok Post, though certain measures to curb transport problems inspire little confidence. The Bangkok Post quoted the SRT governor as saying that the SRT “was looking for an artist to restore a 48-year-old painting at the SRT headquarters amid rumours that the damaged artwork was a bad omen that had caused accidents.” This is nearly as outrageous as Thai Airways Managing Director Sorajak Kasemsuvan saying the company would hold a “a major ceremony to appease the malevolent spirits said to be haunting the [Suvharnabhumi] airport”, where a Thai Airways flight skidded off the runway recently, according to Khaosod.
The entire article was filled with superstitious explanations for transport issues, but the most egregious quote came from Transport Minister Chadchart Suttipunt. Referring to the numerous safety accidents involving buses, trains, speedboats, and the Thai Airways runway incident, he said, “There have been more deaths than usual. Many have suggested that the Ministry of Transport needs a large-scale merit-making ceremony”.
While more practical investigations have been made into why so many accidents are occurring, it is disturbing that high-level officials are emphasizing supernatural influences at all. This is a dangerous mentality, and is unlikely to inspire a sense of safety in tourists and travelers who rely on Thailand’s dubious transportation systems to get around the country.
One hopes that serious, effective repairs will be made to the rail lines, ensuring at least a bit more security for passengers. But it is clear that much more work needs to be done, as many trains travel with old, outdated cars that are often filthy and look less than stable. Sleeper cars on long distance trains are relatively comfortable and a decent option for overnight travel but it’s hard to rest wondering if the train is going to go off the rails.
There are many reasons for foreigners to visit Thailand, between the beaches, the culture, the jungle and the wildlife, but if the country is serious about continuing to support the tourism industry, it must look to and address safety issues in transport in a meaningful way.