Skytrain Sukhumvit Extension Opens

Transit Map 2011-08 

Another piece of Bangkok’s transit network puzzle fell into place on August 12, as the 5-station extension to the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit line opened.  After more than a year’s delay caused by a problem ordering track switching mechanisms on time, passengers can now travel all the way to Soi Bearing (Sukhumvit 107).  This extension gives access to the Bang Na district, a very congested area of the city that has long been in need of additional mass transit.

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Updated map on the ticketing machine obscured the day before opening.

The BTS Skytrain, the first of Bangkok’s three rail transit systems, opened in December 1999 and currently operates a 55-km network composed of two lines and 32 stations.  An average of about 472,000 trips are made on the system each day, with many days exceeding the half-million mark.

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The five new stations all have the same design with the the tracks running through the center of the station and two platforms on the outside of the tracks.  An improvement in these news stations, along with two stations on the Silom line that opened last year, is that the roof covers the entire space.  The original stations have an opening in the area over the tracks, resulting in passengers being partially exposed to the elements, especially the when the sun is lower in the sky.

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One improvement – all the new stations have elevators.  Most of the stations in the system do not have elevators, making travel by train inconvenient for people in wheelchairs (who would have a hard time with most of Bangkok’s sidewalks, too) and parents with strollers.  In front of the elevator doors are three safety posts, the purpose of which is not clear.  Perhaps they are meant to keep someone from rolling out of the elevator and onto the tracks.  I guess if someone was backing out they may not see where the edge of the tracks is, although they would have to travel a couple of meters before reaching it. 

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One challenge to mobility is that the stretch of Sukhumvit Road on which these new stations are built, has narrow sidewalks.  The placement of station stairs and escalators essentially blacks the sidewalks, leaving no room for wheelchairs or strollers or even for two people to pass each other.  This seems like a problem that could have been overcome, although I have noticed that the traffic lanes actually narrow as they pass beneath the stations, so perhaps squeezing out more space was impossible. 

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Fortunately, there are signs of some amount of foresight in the construction of the track viaduct and support structure.  At the point between Udom Suk and Bang Na stations, the track viaduct is wide enough for two pairs of tracks.  In the picture above, just above the pedestrian bridge, you can see the end caps for two additional tracks.

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Turning 180 degrees and looking southeast along the tracks, the left side of the next support beam has a pad on which one of the track viaducts could rest.  The train track passes between two levels of the expressway at Bang Na.  One of the planned future extensions, although there is no specific timeframe in which it will be built, is to have a spur line branch off from the main Sukhumvit line and head northeast along the expressway.  This extension would include a stop at the BITEC convention center.  Currently, the closest station (Bang Na) is about a kilometer away, although an indoor walkway is being constructed to connect the station and the convention center and looks set to open in a few months.

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The problem with the new five-station extension is that it is projected to add some 100,000 additional trips to the system each day, but during rush hour the system is already at peak capacity.  This view of Asoke station, taken at 6:30 pm on a weekday, is too typical. 

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The layout of station entrances, something that would be difficult to change significantly, is narrow and results in ticket machine lines running into the fare gate lines running into still other lines. The entrance areas at the new stations seem to be wider, which will hopefully help.  Another thing that would help at existing stations is to remove small retail kiosks adjacent to the fare gates.  These consume real estate that could ease the congestion of foot traffic.

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The capacity problem is less about station entrance design, though.  It is primarily an issue of not enough train cars.  There are 35, three-car Siemens trains on the system.  Last year, following the opening of two new stations on the Silom line, 12, four-car Bombardier trains were added, running exclusively on the Silom line.  This additional capacity was immediately swallowed up.  In October 2010, the operator of the Skytrain ordered an additional car for each of the three-car trains, although it seems these will not arrive until at least next year.  Also next year, an additional four-station extension will open on the Silom line.  Dr. Pichet Kunadhamraks of the Ministry of Transport’s Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, indicated by email that he thinks these additional train cars will satisfy demand.

Earlier this year, the Transport Minister asked for residents’ patience until 2015, by which point some 60-plus kilometers of additional rail lines will have opened, adding to the approximately 103 kilometers currently operating.  It will be interesting to see whether these new lines and extensions open on time and, if they do, what impact they have on the city’s traffic.  Bangkok is a city that would be well-served if it had a comprehensive network of rail transit.  It would also be well-served by a bus network that feeds into that network, rather than largely duplicating it.  That, however, is a topic for another day.

 

Traffic Planners Battle the Left Turn

Diverging Diamond Springfield

A story on Talk of the Nation earlier this month piqued the interest of my inner urban planner and transportation geek.  It was about the efforts of traffic engineers to design intersections that minimize potential points of conflict and maximize the flow of vehicles.  Particularly, they talked about something called a “Diverging Diamond Interchange” or DDI.

Diamond Interchange

The classic diamond interchange is very inefficient and results in nearly two dozen points of potential conflict between cars going different directions.  Every left turn, whether to enter or exit the freeway, results in the rest of the traffic having to stop.

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One solution known as the “Michigan Left” (because it is used mostly in Michigan, I suppose) is a relatively dangerous solution that has drivers making a u-turn about 200 meters after the intersection, then making a right-hand turn at the intersection.  The disadvantage of these uncontrolled u-turns is that one thing drivers don’t do particularly well is judge the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles. 

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Another solution is the SPUI – Single Point Urban Interchange.  This design has all traffic coming together at a single intersection controlled by a single set of lights.  I’m familiar with this as it is the new design that was built near where I used to live in suburban Kansas City.  It is an elegant design but still has some problems, not the least of which is that the space in the middle of the intersection is very large and people can get lost.  I’ve observed this on several occasions, where cars have drifted into the wrong direction, especially at night when traffic is light and visual cues (like the headlines of oncoming cars) not so available.

If you have never had the pleasure of driving through an SPUI and are curious how they work, here’s a nice short video that shows an animation of traffic going through the intersection. 

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The latest innovation, which so far has only been built a few places in the United States, is something called the Diverging Diamond Interchange, or DDI.  Somewhat counterintuitively, the DDI involves the lanes of traffic switching sides on each end of the interchange.  The result is that there are only two controlled intersections and drastically fewer potential points of conflicts.  All left turns follow the natural, uninterrupted flow of traffic.  (Thanks to NPR for the graphics.)

Here is how it works:

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As you approach the traffic signal, the lanes of traffic curve slightly to the left, passing oncoming traffic (which waits at the light) at a 25-degree angle.

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As you travel through the signal, you are on the left hand side of the road.

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If you are turning left onto the freeway, you simply make a left-hand turn without waiting for a light.  Through traffic keeps on moving, not having to stop for cars waiting to make left-hand turns.

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After passing through the second intersection, traffic crosses back over to the right-hand side of the road.

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Exiting from the freeway to go left onto the arterial road, you merge and do not have to go through an intersection.

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Entering the freeway with a right hand turn is also a merge and does not require you to go through an intersection.  In all, the traffic flows much more smoothly. 

Here’s a short animation that shows the traffic flow.

There are multiple safety benefits.  Traffic keeps moving, reducing standstill time and the risk of rear-end crashes.  Right-angle crashes are eliminated for drivers turning left onto the freeway, as they no longer cross oncoming traffic.  Finally, fewer intersections and independent directions to cross those intersections means fewer collisions caused by people running lights.

All told, I’m sold on the Diverging Diamond Interchange.  Looks like a great way to improve traffic flow and reduce the risks of accidents.

One other option that is interesting is something called the Pinavia interchange, which I guess has been built in Europe.  It is an elaborate interchange that requires no intersections and is aesthetically pleasing, too.  Above is a brief animation to give you an idea of how it works.

Anyhow, that’s enough urban planning/transportation geekiness for today.  But isn’t it fantastic, the things you can learn on NPR?

 

Beautiful Pedestrian Bridge Opens on Sathorn

Last June I wrote about the opening of Bangkok’s Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, line.  This new bit of mass transit is basically a light rail line but without the infrastructure costs of adding rails.  In a bid to connect a growing corner of the city that has never had significant mass transit to the existing rail network, BRT extends from the Chong Nonsi Skytrain station to the south side of the city along Rama III Road.

Of course, for the system to effectively feed passengers onto the rail network, there had to be an easy connection, something that was missing at the half-way point of last year.  Pictures at the BRT stations promised, though, that a grand, shaded walkway would link the BRT’s terminus with the Skytrain station.

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I’m glad to report that just a couple of weeks ago, the arched section of the pedestrian bridge opened.  There is still some additional work being done including the addition of additional, newer stairs to connect to the bridge from surrounding street corners.  This work is proceeding rapidly, though, so I think in just a few short weeks we’ll have a finished product.  Nice to see some bit of urban infrastructure actually come to fruition.

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Looking from the BRT station side of the intersection north towards the Skytrain station.

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While some finishing touches are being placed on the bridge, it is open and being used.

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Lots of people were taking pictures of what is a dramatic addition to the skyline.

 

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:

December
February

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.