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The BTS Fiasco



Just when you think you must have heard it all in La-La Land, something else happens that leaves you scratching your head and confirming that yes, if you live in Thailand, you are in the Twilight Zone.

Back in 2007, already after years of back and forth, arguments and delays, it was decided to construct an eastern extension of the Skytrain for a distance of a mere five kilometres. Not too big a deal, you might have thought. And yes, the work got started, and the pillars were set in place, and the track bed was laid. Those were the days, or rather nights, when anyone journeying home after midnight could often expect long traffic queues as one side of Sukhumvit was blocked off or traffic was reduced to one lane to allow the massive and impressive cranes to lift huge masses of concrete. And eventually the track work job was completed, and the stations were constructed, escalators and lifts installed, stairs were built with barriers in place at street level to stop you usefully using the new stations to cross the street. But never mind about that. It appeared as you rode by underneath the new structure, past the gleaming new stations, that the trains would be thundering by overhead any day now.

But no. This is Thailand. And although the stations are 95 percent complete, something is missing. No signals. None. No signalling system has been installed. And this is where we come to something that must be uniquely Thai. The person that was supposed to procure the signalling system didn’t do it because he was afraid of repercussions if anything went wrong. And here’s the really great thing. This went on for nine months, and no-one noticed. No-one noticed. I and others have written before about the locals being unwilling to take responsibility for anything, because of the fear of doing something wrong and losing face or worse. Actually, no. To a Thai nothing is worse than losing face. So, he was frozen into inaction. That is why Thailand is so backward in so many things. Just part of the culture. And this person, close to retirement and afraid of losing his job and pension, simply sat there for nine months and did nothing. Maybe people did notice, maybe his office staff wondered what was happening and could have had a word in someone’s ear, but of course they couldn’t question the boss. Best keep quiet and pretend everything is operating normally. What this terrified signal procurer's bosses were doing is anyone’s guess. Anyway, no signal system, so no trains, and thousands of people each day will have to continue to flood off the trains at On Nut and continue their journey by bus or taxi for years to come, travelling past the nice new stations that stand idle. According to the Bangkok Post, they cannot even begin testing the system now until late 2011. That is two years from now, and four years after they decided to build just five kilometres of new railway.

Should we be surprised? Of course not. The BTS has only recently opened a 2.2 kilometre extension across the river that was started in 2005. Government interference got in the way of that one, as even after the job was completed political fisticuffs prevented it being opened. Sod the people who were grossly inconvenienced for years. This is politics, and politicians don’t take the train so why should they care? Actually, even though the extension is now open there is still a problem. When they built the original terminal station, at Saphan Taksin, they built it with only one platform. Why? Who knows? They built all the other terminal stations with two platforms, but this is Thailand and there will be some Thai logic somewhere that dictated what they did. Now there is a bottleneck there which causes delays in the rush hour. Oh well. And while we’re on the subject of the BTS and endless delays, they are apparently studying the feasibility of running six-car trains to run through the stations that were, after all, designed for six-car trains. Don’t expect any easing of the gross and sometimes dangerous overcrowding any time soon though. Buying new cars costs money, and BTS are too busy going into the hotel business, constructing several along their routes.

The BTS situation is hardly unique though. Bangkok has a new airport, opened in September 2006. If you are in the airport you can spot a number of helpful signs pointing the way to the buses, with black tape covering the direction to the trains. Because there aren’t any. Not yet. Managing to open a railway link to downtown at the same time as opening the airport was way, way beyond anyone’s ability, despite the airport being 40 years in the planning. The contract for the Airport Rail Link was signed in January 2005, still too late for it to be ready when the airport opened, but never mind. It wouldn’t be long in coming, would it. Yes, it would. We are still waiting, nearly five years after the contract was signed and three years after the airport was opened. It was eventually expected to be ready for opening on HRH’s birthday this year, in December, but it won’t be. And even if it is, the luggage check-in service at the downtown end, at Makkasan Station, won’t be ready.

Now let’s compare Thailand’s less than impressive record in public transport construction with a couple of places overseas. In May 2005 a contract was awarded in Dubai to build a mass transit system, because traffic was so bad it was quicker to travel by camel. Work commenced in March 2006, and the first stage comprising of 10 stations was opened this month, just two and half years later. A total of 35 kilometres will be open during the first half of next year. And China announced this month that they will construct 13,000 – 13,000 THOUSAND – kilometres of high speed rail to be completed by 2012. They’ll be in a race to see if they can open their 13,000 kilometres before the BTS can open their five kilometres from On Nut.

Stickman's thoughts:

It really is so incredibly disappointing that the skytrain extension and the airport link are taking so long to be completed. The benefits these will bring to your average Joe Citizen, particularly the skytrain station, are huge. It is a travesty that it is taking so long to be completed. The economic cost, to say nothing of the social cost, is enormous.