Sunsets on Ploenchit

Yesterday evening I finished a meeting over by Ploenchit BTS station just after sunset. The sky was a beautiful color – particularly pink in the east – and I stopped to take some pictures that turned out rather nice. I thought I’d share them with you.

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The first thing I noticed was the pink sky in the east, a reflection of the setting sun in the towering clouds on that side of the metropolitan area. This view is looking along Ploenchit Road, which turns into Sukhuvmit Road as soon as it crosses beneath that expressway. The Skytrain line runs down the middle of the street and the next station is Nana. Traffic is still pretty light after the new year holiday last weekend.

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Turning around and looking northwest, you can see Wave Place on the left and a new condo, both of which face Witthayu (Wireless) Road. The pink sky in the east is reflected in the windows of Wave Place. Immediately to the right of the condo, just poking out the right side of it, is the Baiyoke 2 Tower, the tallest building in Thailand. The LED lights at the top are showing a Thai flag: red, white, blue, white, and red stripes in that order. In the foreground is one of the remaining old properties that lie along Ploenchit Road, holdouts against the development that is taking over this area.

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A few minutes later I climb up to the Skytrain station platform and take another picture looking east. The pink sky is gone and it is actually dark purple at this point. But because I used an exposure of about 1/13 of a second, the sky’s color appears lighter.

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Looking due west, you can see a train departing Ploenchit station for Nana. Behind it is Mahatun Plaza, one of the older office buildings in this area, and the brand-new Park Ventures tower, about which I wrote yesterday. The side-view of the building is meant to evoke the wai – the polite Thai gesture of greeting where the palms of the hands are placed together, fingers points skyward.

 

My Action Photo

The entertaining MyWinningPhoto site here on Xanga hosts weekly themed photo contests. Last week’s theme was “Action” and, unfortunately, I didn’t get my photo submitted by the deadline. Nonetheless, I thought I would share it with you.

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Taken on the Thong Lo BTS Skytrain platform with a Panasonic Lumix LX3 – f/5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/1.3 seconds, a 24mm lens, and an ISO of 80. Hope you enjoyed – and don’t forget to go vote!

 

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.

 

A Map to the Future

As the city grows, as business and tourism rebound after the political upheaval of the past few years, Bangkok’s rail transit gets increasingly crowded.  Following the opening of a two-station extension, the first across the Chao Phraya River, the Skytrain recently put into service new four-car trains on the Silom line.  At the same time, they have ordered additional cars that should arrive in the next year or so to enlarge the existing three-car trains, all of which will be placed on the Sukhumvit line.

Riding on one of the new trains recently, I was surprised to look at the system map posted over the door and discover nine stations that I had never seen before.  In a fit of extreme advance planning, the maps show not only the five stations that are scheduled to open at the On Nut end of the Sukhumvit line in August 2011, but also the four stations that will be added beyond Wongwian Yai station, across the river, sometime in the later part of 2012.

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Needless to say, the advance planning didn’t include the “Future Stations” stickers, so for several weeks passengers were scratching their heads, wondering whether the new stations had surreptitiously opened.  The stickers have been added, though, so now everyone can admire all of the new stations they have to look forward to.

Along those lines, Tawn and I were on the northwestern outskirts of the city this past weekend visiting friends’ new baby, and we came across two sections of new rail construction, one definitely the “Purple Line” and another that was a bit confusing.  It is either part of the Purple Line or else may be part of the Red Line, although I didn’t realize they had started building it.

In any case, I’m excited to see that some significant signs of progress are being made in extending the mass transit infrastructure here in Bangkok.  It may take a few more years of pain, but the results should be well worth it.  All we need to do now is to integrate the buses routes into the rail system and we’ll really have something going!

 

Seven Modes of Transport Around Bangkok

Last week I took two of my visiting guests (the third is Thai and was visiting his family instead) around Bangkok to see the sights.  Instead of doing the usual things, we spent a good portion of the day exploring the city using different, and often less-touristy, modes of transportation. 

The idea occurred to me a few weeks ago.  One of the guests is an aviation enthusiast, so I extrapolated that he might also be interested in other forms of transportation.  When I’ve previously used other ways to get around the city, I find myself seeing Bangkok through an entirely different light.

The modes of transport used could be varied and there were at least three – bus, taxi, and motorcycle taxi – that we did not try.  In the future, I will have to refine this itinerary, but here are the notes from this time.

Seven Modes

Mode 1: MRT Subway from Sukhumvit Station to Hualamphong Station

Walking from their hotel to the nearby Asoke-Sukhumvit intersection, my guests and I descended into Bangkok’s five-year old subway for a ten-minute ride to the Hualamphong train station.  The subway is clean and modern and the insides of the trains as well as the platform areas are surprisingly free of advertising.  A short walk through an underground passage took us to the front entrance of the Hualamphong Railway Station.  Trip price, approximately 20 baht each.

 

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Mode 2: State Railways of Thailand from Hualamphong Station to Lat Krabang Station

Our timing was perfect as there was just enough time to buy our 8-baht tickets and get to the platform before the four-car diesel locomotive pulled out of this 1930’s-era station and began the thirty-minute ride to the eastern suburbs of the city.  We could have disembarked at an earlier station and shaved some time off our route, but these open-window, unairconditioned carriages (which are older than me) and their passengers provide interesting people watching.  My entry about the steam engines the State Railways pulls out for special occasions.

 

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Mode 3: Airport City Line from Lat Krabang Station to Makkasan Station

Also operated by the State Railways, this elevated electric train runs along the same right-of-way as the diesel train, so we retraced our steps.  The City Line and the Airport Express share the same track and we disembarked at the brand-new “in-city terminal” where one day passengers will be able to check in for flights, deposit their baggage, and take the 15-minute express train to Suvarnabhumi Airport.  15 baht each but will increase after January 1 to a distance-based pricing scheme.  Link to my review of the Airport Express.

 

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A dog taking a nap outside the Petchaburi MRT Station, near the Asoke Pier.

Mode 4: San Saeb Canal Boat from Asoke Pier to Golden Mount

A short walk from Makkasan Station is the San Saeb Canal, a major east-west aquatic artery in this “Venice of the East” and the only one that has regular boat service.  The water is murky and the boat engines are very loud, but it is an adventure and provides a view of yet another, much poorer, facet of life in the Big Mango.  The end of the line is at the foot of the Golden Mount, the only hill in the city.  11 baht each.

Some pictures from the canal boat:

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Craig and Matt and a few dozen other passengers enjoy their ride on the murky waters of the San Saeb Canal.

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The boats whiz under various bridges, some so low that the canopied top of the boat must be lowered.

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Which explains why the conductors/deck hands wear helmets and are very alert of their surroundings.

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Not my guests.

Mode 5: Tuk-tuk from Golden Mount to Tammasat University

We negotiated with a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a riverside restaurant located just outside the gates of Tammasat University.  Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled auto-rickshaws that serve as transportation in many parts of town, so named because of the sound of their engines.  These are actually pretty dangerous and for the price you pay, a taxi offers greater comfort (air conditioning!) and safety (seatbelts!).  We could have taken the tuk-tuk all the way to the Grand Palace but I was hungry so lunch first.  60 baht total, so 20 baht each.

 

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Previous guests (not Craig and Matt) after disembarking from the Chao Phraya River Taxi.

Mode 6: Chao Praya River Taxi from Tha Tian Pier to Sathorn Pier

After lunch we were too late to see the Grand Palace (it closes at 3:30 – don’t believe anyone who tells you it is closed before that time) so we walked to Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  I’ll write about that in another entry but once we were finished, a bit after rush hour, we caught a river taxi service from the Thai Tian Pier right near the temple back to Sathorn Pier underneath the Taksin Bridge.  Also 11 baht each.

 

Skytrain Departure

Mode 7: BTS Skytrain from Taksin Station to Asoke Station

We concluded our journey by walking to the nearby BTS Skytrain station.  The 10-year old BTS Skytrain is convenient and overcrowded.  Thankfully, new four-car trains are entering the system soon and additional cars have been ordered for the three-car trains.  From what I’ve read, BTS is also the hold-up in the efforts to create a common ticketing platform (a la Hong Kong’s Octopus card) between the three electric rail systems.  Nonetheless, for about 30 baht we made our way back to the Asoke-Sukhumvit junction.

New Pedestrian Bridges at Asoke and Thong Lo

For a city of about 8 million people with generally poor mass transit systems, Krungthep (Bangkok) can sometimes surprise you with the usefulness of some of its infrastructure development.  A good example of this are the pedestrian bridges built to connect some of the BTS Skytrain (elevated rail) stations to surrounding buildings.  In a city with lots of traffic congestion, poor air quality, and even poorer footpath quality, an elevated way to get from the station to the buildings is a big incentive to get out of the car and into the mass transit.

Asoke Road

The junction of Asoke and Sukhumvit roads is an example of this bridge building trend.  One of the busiest intersections in the city, crossing at street level has long been a hazardous activity for pedestrians.  Located at the intersection of the MRTA subway and the BTS Skytrain, this junction houses three high-rise offices each with a few floors of retail, two large hotels, and a nine-story mall that is under construction.

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The pedestrian bridge built under the Skytrain viaduct, heading east from the Asoke station.

In the past two years, pedestrian bridges were built to the west of the BTS Skytrain station, connecting the two hotels and one of the three office buildings.  Then a large bridge was built to the east under the Skytrain tracks on Sukhumvit, crossing Asoke in a single cantilevered structure.  On the east side of the junction the pedestrian bridge connected to the building in the southeast corner, but not to the newer building on the northeast corner.

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The northeast corner of the Asoke-Sukhumvit junction. 

Before the pedestrian  bridge opened across Asoke, you had to descend from the Skytrain station to the subway station, cross under Asoke road in the subway station, and then reemerge at the base of this building.  The subway entrance is in the lower left of the photo, near the large umbrellas.  The new pedestrian bridge is on the right that connects directly to the building is on the right.  What follows are some pictures of the connection under construction over the past two months:

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Taken about six weeks ago, you can see in this picture how the new extension of the bridge will connect from the existing pedestrian bridge (shown in the very first picture in this entry) to the third floor of the building.  At this point, just a part of the metal framework has been put into place.

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A few days later, crossbeams have been added and some of the concrete flooring is in place.  You can also see how a stairwell to the street level – a requirement for all the bridges that connect to buildings to allow after-hours access to the pedestrian bridge – fits into the design.

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A few days after that, the columns for the roof structure are mostly in place.  The following week, the roof itself has been added and most of the side panels are installed.

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Finally, about two weeks ago the bridge is finished and is nearly open.  Lighting is working, as you can see.  This will be much more convenient to access the building and its businesses.  Certainly much easier than having to pass through the subway station to get there!  Plus, you can now descend to the street and access businesses along this side of the street more easily.

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A second example of new pedestrian bridges is going up on the west side of the Thong Lo Skytrain station.  This is my neighborhood station and it lies just to the east of the junction of Thong Lo and Sukhumvit Roads, two stops to the east of the Asoke station.

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Looking west from the foot of the Thong Lo Station

The main driver behind this bridge is the Noble Remix condo (the purple building) which will have two floors of retail below about 35 stories of residences.  While the retail floors will get traffic from the residents, there’s no hope of anyone else traipsing over there unless it is convenient, and that means a pedestrian bridge. 

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Looking west from the station’s westbound platform.

Looking from the station platform to the west, you can see the condo on the left and the entrance to my alley on the right, just under the tracks before the first column.  The rationale for needing a pedestrian bridge is that someone walking along the sidewalk has to go along the petrol station and then cross a small but busy alley between the petrol station and the condo.  By building the bridge, it is safer and more convenient for pedestrians. 

At the same time, some stairs will be built on the north (righthand) side of the road in front of the international school – the building that is wrapped in blue construction tarp.  This should be safer for students and their parents to access the Skytrain station.

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Looking back from in front of the international school towards the BTS Skytrain station, you can see the condo to the right and the first columns of the pedestrian bridge.  This is about two months ago.

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As of four weeks ago, box frames were built around the train viaduct’s columns.

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A few weeks later, the bridgework was added to connect each of the support columns.  For the past two weeks, no further work has been done including the connection to the station itself.  I’m curious to see how quickly they will finish this project.  It seems like it should not be difficult but each step has moved quite slowly.  In the end, it won’t benefit me very much but it is another sign of progress in making the Skytrain more accessible to the area surrounding the station and and more user-friendly to potential passengers.

 

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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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.