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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.