First Ride on the Bangkok Airport Link

Three years late, the rail line to the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport has finally started running, although on a limited, trial basis.  Last week I headed out for a look at this latest addition to Krungthep’s transit infrastructure.

The new airport, Suvarnabhumi, opened more than three years ago about 30 km east of the heart of the city.  The planned rail service, the so called “pink line,” suffered through interminable delays caused for any number of reasons, not the least of which might have to do with the State Railways of Thailand’s notorious inefficiency.  The SRT, which owns the right-of-way, built, and will eventually operate the pink line, has never turned a profit in its more than half-century of operations.

Nonetheless, I’m excited that another piece in the transit puzzle is nearly put into place as the line started limited trial service almost two weeks ago.

Airport Link Map

The pink line is actually two lines: the darker line is the city line, which will make multiple stops between the airport and Phaya Thai, which is currently the westernmost station.  As you can see in the above map, there were several planned but unbuilt stations, shown with station names in outlined font.  The second, light pink line is the airport link, which will run nonstop between the airport and the Makkasan station (at Asoke and Petchaburi Roads), where the in-city terminal will be located.

If all goes according to plan, passengers will be able to check in for their flights at Makkasan station, receive boarding passes and drop off their bags, then ride on the train to the airport.  Their bags will be carried in a secure storage area and, already ticketed, will go from the train directly into the airport’s baggage system.  It sounds like there will be some delay before that part is operational.

Additionally, the plan is that passengers on the pink line will be able to connect with the BTS Skytrain at Phaya Thai and with the MRT subway at Makkasan-Petchaburi.  Sadly, it appears that neither connection is currently built.

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I met up with Bill and Ken, two friends with an interest in things both transit and aviation related, at the Phaya Thai BTS station to give the pink line a try.  During this trial run, only the two end stations – Phaya Thai and Airport – are operational on the pink line.  The train service is running weekdays from 7-10 am and 4-10 pm nonstop between these stations, although some intermediate stops will be introduced next week.  This trial run is free and will last until August, when the full system is supposed to be in service.

Above, you can see the Phaya Thai station of the pink line, the big concrete behemoth on the right, and a ramp that is supposed to connect to the Phaya Thai BTS station on the left.  You’ll notice, though, that the ramp stops about 5 meters short of the BTS station.  I’m curious about this because passengers will have to walk down to the street level, along 100-200 meters of broken, dirty sidewalk, cross an active railway line, and then ascend into the second station, regardless of which way they are connecting.

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Above: Flagman at the active railroad tracks that passengers connecting between the pink line and BTS have to cross, directs cars off the track as a train approaches.

My theory for this is that the two systems didn’t communicate very well, even though the BTS has been running for more than ten years so certainly wasn’t an unknown entity.  The ramp would connect a paid area in the BTS station with a public area in the pink line station.  So someone is going to have to pay to build and maintain turnstiles and a BTS ticket booth somewhere at the connection point.  This is insane because the three rail systems in town are supposed to be moving to a common ticket platform – one ticket, all systems – so the ramp should lead from the paid area to another paid area, not pass through a public area of the pink line station.

Anyhow, we walked across the railroad tracks with no problems and took the elevators up several levels in the new pink line station, being directed by friendly guards the whole way.

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The trains (these are the city line trains being used for the test run, not the airport link trains) are from Siemens and they look nice enough.  The stations along the line are not very impressive, a collage of grey concrete and grey metal.  Only the Makkasan and Airport stations are air conditioned.

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The line was pretty well used when I took it about 4pm.  By the time the train left, the seats were full with many of the passengers looking like airport employees or people who live out in the eastern suburbs.  There were also many local tourists traveling just to see the new train and, surprisingly, a few people actually using the train to get to the airport with their bags. 

Once the line is fully operational, the city line will charge between about 10-40 baht (up to US$1.25) and the airport link will charge 150 baht (US$4.75).  I would assume that the seating arrangement on the airport link train will feature pairs of seats facing forwards and backwards along with storage space for carry-on baggage.

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Notice the wide gap between the train and the platform.  It looks like there is a ledge under the door that can be extended, but they were not doing that.

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The monitors in the station show a video of the route, alternating between Thai and English.  There is also a countdown clock until the next departure – shown in seconds!  I’ve never seen a train station that shows countdown time in seconds.  And, believe me, SRT isn’t the sort of prompt organization that runs things to the second.

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Looking east from Phaya Thai station towards the Ratchaprarop station, the two closest stations on the line.

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The ride itself was very smooth, with the exception of one station midway through the line where there is a passing lane.  We had to slow down significantly to change tracks, breaking our otherwise good speed of approximately 120 kmh or 75 mph.  We were going faster than all but the fastest taxis on the expressway that parallels the tracks most of the way to the airport.

Along the way, there was a nice view of the many new housing development springing up near the airport and the new stations on the pink line.  This line will probably become very useful, less for airport passengers and employees, but more for locals who live to the east of the city and need a fast way to commute into town to their offices.

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It took just about 20 minutes to go from Phaya Thai station to the airport.  I understand that the airport link service from Makkasan to the airport will be about 16.  The train pulls into the sub-basement of the car park structure, connecting directly into the terminal building.  A quick ride up the elevator or moving sidewalks and you are at the arrivals and departures levels.  Very convenient on this end of the line.  In the future, you will be able to walk through this station to the airport hotel, which you currently have to take a shuttle van to.  The station will also have various retail shops, although those are all located on the hotel side of the station, which doesn’t make much sense.

There are some potential cons to the system right now and I’ll have to wait and see how it works once the whole system is up and running, then I’ll talk more about the cons if they haven’t been addressed.  For the moment, I’ll simply say that I’m glad additional transit options are opening and I hope that we’ll see several more in the next few years.

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Speaking of which, one has to wonder where the pink line, which ends just to the west of the Phaya Thai station, will go in the future.  The master plan shows this line continuing, turning north and heading towards the old Don Meuang airport (and beyond) and also turning south and heading to the current Hualamphong train station and then underground, across the river, and southwest to Samut Sakhon province.  Ambitious!

Skytrain Sukhumvit Extension – Update

Being a transit/infrastructure/civil engineering buff as well as a long suffering resident of this traffic clogged metropolis, I’m always curious as to the status of different mass transit projects.  One of the two that I’m eagerly anticipating is the extension of the Sukhumvit Line of the BTS Skytrain.

Sukhumvit is the main east-west running road in Krungthep.  It changes names along the way, but it pretty much runs from the heart of the old city, through the Siam Square area, past the Asoke, Thong Lor and Ekkamai neighborhoods, before turning to the southeast and eventually – a few hours later – ending up in Pattaya.

Even with the existing Skytrain line running to On Nut, traffic on Sukhumvit remains very heavy.  Currently, an extension is underway that will take the line all the way to Bang Na on the border of Bangkok and Samut Prakhan provinces.  There is an additional extension planned that will take the line well into Samut Prakhan and would help many commuters to reach the city.

Earlier this week I was dropping our car off at the Nissan dealership at Sukhumvit 101 and I decided to snap some pictures of the current progress.  It took me a while to find the previous pictures I had posted from the same spot.

Before and After – Taken from a pedestrian bridge just south of the future Punnawithi Station (at approximately Sukhumvit Soi 101), I was able to look north (back towards On Nut, Thong Lo, Asoke, and Siam) along Sukhumvit Road.  The top picture was taken in December 2007.  The bottom picture (taken just about 30 feet to the left of where I was standing for the top picture) was taken this week:

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Of course the big question is, when is it going to open?  It seems that the infrastructure is largely complete.  According to reports, the delay in opening was caused by someone at city hall who didn’t process the paperwork to order track switching equipment.  Pardon me while I roll my eyes.

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Meanwhile, after dropping my car off at the dealer, I decided to catch one of the dozens of bus lines running along Sukhumvit to connect back to the On Nut Skytrain station, which is the current end of the line.  These busses do not have air conditioning, have wooden floorboards, and don’t quite come to a stop when picking up or dropping off passengers.  At 7 baht (about US$0.21) they are a bargain, though.  Thankfully, it was mid-day and there were few passengers.  I was able to snag a seat beneath one of the oscillating fans.

 

Raising the Sidewalks of Krungthep

As layer upon layer of asphalt gets added to the streets, the distance between the road surface and the footpaths steadily diminishes.  Once the torrential showers of rainy season arrive, this means ever more flooding that dampens the ankles of residents.  The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, in all their wisdom, is addressing this issue by raising the sidewalks.  In the case of Sathorn Road, a main business artery, sidewalks have increased by about a foot (30 cm).

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Here you see a raised section abutting a section of the footpath that is at the old height.  The new section actually gains additional elevation behind the fence.  The green metal poles are a new addition, too, designed to prevent motorized vehicles (except motorcycles, I suppose) from driving on the footpaths.  They are still wide enough to allow street vendors’ carts to enter, though.

The problem is – and you can probably anticipate this as it is common to metropolitan governments the world over – the construction crew responsible for raising the footpaths isn’t responsible for raising any of the objects along the footpaths such as street lamps, signs and bus stops.

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The net effect is that bus stop seats that used to be at a comfortable sitting height are now at a squat.  Sure enough, another contractor is following the first one, tearing up the new pavers (which, a first for Krungthep, are actually on a cement base rather than just floating on a layer of sand and dirt), then digging out and raising the benches, shelters, signs, etc.

If I didn’t know better, I would think this inefficiency was an intentional way to spread a little largess.  Wait a minute…  would they do that?  Nah…

 

Crossing Asoke

The airport link rail line, which will connect Suvarnabhumi International Airport (which opened almost exactly two years ago) to the center of the city, is taking shape.  Even though it still has at least another year to go – probably more like two – it is exciting to see some progress being made.

After my return from the United States, I noticed that the construction of the tracks crossing Asoke Road was finally taking place.  The viaducts on either side were completed first and finally the construction workers inched forward to build this connecting span.

Last week I stopped by the intersection early on a wet morning to take a look.

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The first thing I saw was this monk, waiting halfway across the street, standing on the State Railway of Thailand tracks, for a break in the oncoming traffic.  A minute later, there was a break and he continued across the street.

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Above: This is the bridge itself or, more accurately, the three bridges.  The new in-city airport terminal (where you can check in for your flights before taking the train to the airport) is just out of the frame to the left of the picture.  We are looking here from the southeast corner of the intersection of Asoke and the frontage road that runs along the railway track, towards the northwest.

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Above: The bridges are very high and I was amazed to see this worker standing there without any safety harness.

I walked a little further up Asoke to peer over the construction site fence and see how the terminal itself is progressing, below.

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It looks like the terminal walls have been completed, but the structure over the tracks is still being done.  Also, ramps and much of the other infrastructure remains to be done.  My understanding is the large lot around the building will be developed with car parks underneath and office, retail and other commercial space nearby. 

In the distance you can see Baiyoke II Tower, the tallest building in Thailand and the tallest structure between Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.

 

Dining in Bangkok: Tonkatsu Raku Tei

Tonkatsu 1 Last weekend Tawn and I took a little time to get out of the house, run some errands, and see some friends.  This, despite the heavy load of work.

BK Magazine, a free English-language newspaper, published a list of what they consider to be the best five or six tonkatsu restaurants in town.  Japanese make up the largest expatriate population in Thailand and we live in the heart of the Japanese section of town.

Not too surprisingly, there is some really good and affordable Japanese food to be had.  In fact, every time I head back to the US, one of the things I specifically don’t want to eat (besides Thai food, natch) is Japanese food.

We decided to try one of the recommended restaurants: Tonkatsu Raku Tei, located in the basement level at the Citi Resort service apartments on Sukhumvit Soi 39.

When you walk in, it becomes very clear that Tonkatsu Raku Tei (Hey! They have the same initials as former Prime Minister Thaksin’s political party… conspiracy?) is the real deal because all the other diners are Japanese.  That’s a good sign, right?

What I really wanted to try was the tried and true standard of all tonkatsu: rosukatsu, made from fillet of pork loin, with a thin layer of fat along the side, breaded in panko breadcrumbs, and lightly fried.

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Served with two homemade tonkatsu sauces, an original flavor and a really good spicy one that tastes a bit like barbecue sauce but without the tomato, the tonkatsu was tender and not too oily.  The pork itself was a bit bland, although moist, and served as a neutral carrier for the sauces’ flavors.

One lesson we learned – sadly, after the fact – was that the sesame seeds in the bowl on the left and meant to be ground up, using the wooden pestle on the far right of the picture that we mistook as a chopstick rest.  Oh, silly us!

 

After lunch, we stopped by Scott and Jum’s house to see their new baby.  They live in an interesting townhome development that is very Grecco-Roman in its design.   Too bad I didn’t get a wider picture so you could fully appreciate the number of columns that adorned each building.

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P1090805 The baby, whose name I’m not sure how to spell correctly so I won’t try here, is very cute.  He’s a mixture of Thai and American heritage so has blended features.

He’s so low-key.  He didn’t really mind who was holding him, but apparently really hates being cooped up indoors and his fussing quiets when he is brought outside.

We drove Jum and baby over to a gathering of former United Airlines colleagues.  Tawn flew with UA for a few years around the turn of the century.  (That sounds old, doesn’t it?)  Sadly, we just received news that as part of their further cutbacks, United will be closing their Bangkok flight attendant base for the second time since the 2001 attacks.

The colleague’s house at which the gathering was held is up near the old airport.  It took a bit of driving to get to and we were confused and overshot it by a few kilometers.  Along the way, we passed the remnants of the elevated rail line that was originally going to run from the center of the city up to the old airport and then on out to the Rangsit area.

The project, which was operated by a Hong Kong-based conglomerate called Hopewell Holdings, ran into problems in the late 90s and the contract was canceled by the Thai government.  Due to the inability of the project to ever really gain traction, it became largely derided as the Hopeless Project.  All that remains of the project are a significant number of columns running along the Don Meuang Tollway.

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A sign of optimism, there were several housing estates built along the Hopewell right of way (which has a still-operating train line underneath it), including this slightly over-the-top property called Monte Carlo:

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So the trip to see Tawn’s colleagues was a good use of time if for no other reason than it allowed me to get an up-close look at the Stonehenge of Thailand.  Every so often, there is talk of reviving the project or using the surviving infrastructure to build the extension of the airport link (which is still another year or more away from opening) to connect both the old and new airport.

One final thing to leave you with, a very nice pizza I ate at Bacco restaurant, just at the other end of the soi from us.

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I think the restaurant makes its own ricotta cheese.  It was so good!