Bangkok by Train, Boat, Bus, and Tuk-Tuk

A few weeks ago, I was visited by a quartet of friends, several of whom are transportation geeks… er, enthusiasts. Reprising a transportation-themed tour I led two years ago, I took my guests on a six-hour excursion around the metropolis. This time, the number of modes of transportation increased from seven to ten: Thong Lor red bus, Khlong Saen Saeb canal boat, taxi, third-class heavy rail, non-air conditioned city bus, Chao Phraya express boat, ferry, tuk-tuk, Bus Rapid Transit, and Skytrain.

I hope you enjoyed the journey!

 

Passing on Thai Highways

A few weeks ago I needed to do a border run. While I normally do this by flying somewhere, what with higher plane ticket prices I decided to try something I hadn’t done in a long while: the tour bus ride to the Cambordian border. Based on that experience, I think I’ll spend the extra money on a plane ticket in the future.

The story is told here in this two-and-a-half minute video:

Look, I realize that land-based travel is all that most Thais can afford. That’s perfectly understandable. And I don’t want to be one of those foreigners who insists that everything should be just as neat, tidy, and safe as it is back home. But…

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Sample of the type of images that regularly grace Thai news sources. Courtesy The Nation newspaper

…after taking this border run and being reminded of how dangerously Thai bus, van, and truck drivers operate their vehicles, especially when it comes to passing on the road, I think my chances of returning from my border run alive are significantly higher if I fly!

 

Bangkok Bus Rapid Transit

Months after I thought the project was fatally stalled, Bangkok’s new Bus Rapid Transit scheme started running this past week.  Finally, the City of Angels is making some more progress away from private automobiles and towards public transit.

The concept of Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is somewhat akin to having a light rail system but substituting busses for the rail cars.  This way, you don’t have the significant infrastructure investment while still enjoying many of the benefits of light rail transit.  Cities as varied as Jakarta, São Paulo, Bogotá, Seattle, and Brisbane use various BRT systems to good effect.

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This first route (four more are planned in the years to come) is shown in green at the bottom of the map.  It begins near the Chong Nonsi BTS Skytrain station on Narathiwat Road between Silom and Sathorn Roads, running southeast along Narathiwat Road and then turning onto Rama III Road and heading west along the south side of the city, terminating on the Thonburi side of the river near the future Ratchadapisek BTS station on the western extension of the Silom Skytrain line.  Prolific blogger Richard Barrow has created a Google map showing the whole thing in detail. 

Based on questions I’ve asked, the new Ratchadapisek BTS station should be within easy connecting distance of the BRT terminus, but looking around once we reached the terminus, I could see the Skytrain tracks but no indication of construction of the new station.  Articles I’ve read in the newspaper say that BTS plans to have this extension opened by the end of 2012.  We’ll see…

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The first map left out one important part of the larger transit scheme here in Bangkok – the Airport Express.  The Airport Express (the dotted red line labeled “Airport Link” in the map above) just began trial runs for the public this week and I’ll take a ride next week and report on it, too. 

As you can see, we are starting to get a more comprehensive transit network in place.  If you are really curious, a reader of 2Bangkok.com created a very nice map that shows what our rail transit network would look like if every single proposed line and extension were built.  You can find that map here.

So let’s get on with a review of the BRT itself.  My friend Ken and I, after completing an errand at the US embassy, took the bus down to the Sathorn/Narathiwat intersection.  Last October I wrote an entry about the intersection and I’ve pulled some “before” pictures from that entry to contrast with current pictures.

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This is an artist’s rendering of what the intersection will look like (facing northwest looking up Narathiwat Road towards Sathorn) once the construction is complete.  The BRT station is at the bottom and the Chong Nonsi BTS station is at the top.  The area with the yellow arch is part of the pedestrian bridge that is being constructed over Sathorn Road, replacing two smaller pedestrian bridges that currently exist at the corners of the intersection.  A green-roofed walkway connects from the Chong Nonsi BTS station to the pedestrian bridge.  That walkway is pictured below, with the Chong Nonsi station in the distance.

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Current view of the walkway, above, and the way it looked in October 2009, below.

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A view from the Skytrain looking southeast towards the BRT station.  You can see the significant steel works that will form the pedestrian bridge crossing Sathorn Road.  This is the area where the yellow arches appear in the artist’s rendering a few pictures above. 

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A closer view of the walkway leading from the Sathorn intersection to the BRT station under construction in October 2009.

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And that same completed walkway now.  In the walkway, you pass through a ticketing area (which, I understand, will eventually use the same stored-value fare cards that the Skytrain, subway, and Airport Express will use) and descend escalators to an enclosed waiting room.

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The waiting room at the Sathorn station has glazed glass and air conditioners, making your wait for the bus more comfortable.  Interestingly, the rest of the stations along the line do not have air conditioning, only the two terminal stations.  But the other stations are in the middle of the road and, presumably, catch a decent breeze. 

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Busses, which look like Heimlich, the German caterpillar in the animated Pixar film A Bug’s Life,  run every ten minutes.  The operator’s compartment is separated from the passenger compartment, rather like on a train. 

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The layout of the floor includes bench seating in the front and lots of standing room.  Capacity is around 50 passengers.  An LCD monitor at the front shows a map of where the bus is on the route, updating in real time, kind of like the “air show” maps on airplanes.  Information on the monitor alternates between English and Thai.

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The back half of the bus has single seats, which seem to be a waste of the raised floor space.  They should change these to be benches as well, which would make better use of the space.  The two men in blue shirts and ties were from the BTS Skytrain organization, apparently conducting some corporate espionage.  Competition between transit systems must be fierce!  Ha ha…

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Near the end of the route, the bus crosses the Chao Phraya River on the Rama III Bridge.  Above is a view looking northwards towards the heart of the city.  You can see that many condos (and a few hotels) have sprung up along the river.  Supposedly, there has been a moratorium on further riverside development higher than eight stories, but I don’t know if that is actually true.  Off in the distance you can barely make out the gold-domed State Tower, which appears in the pictures from our stay last weekend at the Peninsula Hotel.

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Above is the view from the same bridge looking roughly southwards as the Chao Phraya River prepares to make a large turn to the east.  In April 2006, Tawn and I stopped by the temple you see on the right of the picture during Songkhran.  There was something like a summer school for young boys, all of whom had their heads shaved and had donned the saffron robes of novice monks.

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They were playing around – kung fu fighting, it looked like – on the roof of the temple in the heat of the early afternoon.  Not very monastic behavior, but it made for a good picture.  The rest of the story of that trip to Thonburi is here.

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Stations along the way are in the median of the road, requiring a climb up stairs or escalators and then across the road on a pedestrian bridge.  About 70% of the BRT’s route has a dedicated lane for the bus, set off from the rest of the traffic by green and white striped concrete barriers. 

The remaining 30% is on a section of road with only two lanes, one of which has been painted and signed as being only for BRT busses and vehicles with three or more occupants.  Needless to say, traffic on the remaining lane has become even more congested on that section of road, leading to a lot of complaints by car drivers that the BRT is worsening traffic, not improving it.  Hopefully, the policemen will actually enforce the law and keep drivers out of the BRT lanes.

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An interesting feature of the BRT system is that there are additional concrete curbs installed on both sides of the lane at the station.  The driver wants to get as close to the platform as possible to make boarding smooth and safe.  There are two small wheels sticking out from under the bus, parallel to the ground.  These sense the curb and alert the driver so he can properly position himself.  All boarding is through the single door in the center of the bus, which is at the same level as the platform.  There is one emergency exit (see the red handle?) at the back of the bus.

The trip took about thirty minutes one way and provided an interesting look at some corners of the city I don’t see very often.  The ride is smooth and comfortable, the stations seem well-located, and the directions and announcements were easy to understand.  All in all, I have to give a solid B+ to the Bangkok BRT system.  If they would bring the same sort of rationalization to the rest of the dozens of bus routes that ply this city, they wouldn’t need to build any more rail. 

Next week… the Airport Express is finally running.  Stay tuned.