Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Train in the Sky

Passengers in a nearly empty car on the "Purple Line," Bangkok's newest commuter rail line. 

A new light rail line opened in Bangkok this month. Bangkok's light rail trains are called "Sky Train" because they run, in a very sci-fi way, far above the city's streets. The new line, called the "Purple Line," runs from Bang Sue, in the northern suburbs, to Nonthaburi, in the far northern suburbs. A new commuter light rail line is a big deal in Bangkok. Traffic here is horrible and the mass transit infrastructure is one of the things that makes the city livable. 

The new line is having some problems though. It's only attracting about 20,000 riders per day (when 70,000 per day was predicted before the line opened). Even at rush hours, the trains are nearly empty. 

In contrast, the Sukhumvit Line, which runs from Samut Prakan (in the eastern suburbs) to downtown, is so full there is literally no room on the trains. 

We use the Ekkamai Station on the Sukhumvit Line, it's about halfway between the current terminus and downtown. The trains on the Sukhumvit Line are so full during the morning and evening rush hours that we sometimes have to wait for three or four trains to pass before we can squeeze on. One or two people will get off the train at our stop, but 20-30 will be waiting to get on. And it's like that at most of the stations on the line. Most people get off at stations in central Bangkok that intersect with other mass transit lines. 

The Silom Line, which runs from downtown to the southeast suburbs in Thonburi, is nearly as full. 
The "Purple Line" terminal in Tao Poon station. This picture was made from the Purple Line platform, the track coming into the station will be the connection for the existing MRT Blue Line, which is a subway for most of its length. 

The problem on the Purple Line is that the train doesn't yet connect to any other Bangkok mass transit line. The MRT Blue Line (Bangkok's subway) is supposed to connect with the Purple Line, but the Purple Line started running before the connection was complete. People who ride the Purple Line into Bangkok have to drive or take a taxi to their nearest station, ride the new line towards Bangkok then transfer to the subway. 
A Purple Line train comes into a station.

When the connection is complete the transfer should be pretty easy, although it might mean walking a couple of hundred meters. The connection from the MRT Subway to the Airport Rail Link, another commuter line, is about a 500 meter walk for example. But right now, with the two stations more than a kilometer apart, it means either taking the connector bus (which is free), some kind of taxi or walking. The transfers take time. The day I rode the train, the one kilometer transfer from the MRT to the Purple Line took about 20 minutes because of one way streets and traffic in that part of Bangkok. The MRT has promised to complete the connection by March 2017 but between now and then you have to transfer on the surface streets.
A nearly empty car on the Purple Line. This picture was made at about 9:10AM, at that time the Sukhumvit and Silom trains are still completely full. 

The situation for the MRT (the organization that runs the Purple Line, and the same company that operates the MRT Blue Line subway) is so bad that the Prime Minister Prayuth has invoked Article 44, a section of the Charter (constitution) which allows the PM to unilaterally issue orders which are not subject to legislative or legal appeal or oversight. He has ordered the MRT to increase ridership on the Purple Line. The MRT responded by reducing fares for passengers who use frequent rider cards by about half. Passengers who buy individual ride tickets still pay the full price though. In the meantime, the MRT is losing about 3 million Baht (around $85,000 US) per day on the Purple Line. 

There's a concept in mass transit planning called "The Last Mile," which basically means that no matter how good a mass transit system is, if the last (or first) mile is difficult, inconvenient, or takes too much time then people will choose to drive. It's a concept Singapore, for example, completely understands and has made their mass transit a joy to use.  

It's a concept Phoenix doesn't understand at all. Phoenix has a terrific light rail line but once you get past the urban centers of downtown Phoenix or Tempe you still need a car to get around. Bangkok is somewhere between the two, but closer to Phoenix than it is to Singapore. The mass transit is improving every year, but you frequently have to use a taxi or face a long (and uncomfortable) walk in the Bangkok heat once you get off the train. 
A security guard on a platform on the Purple Line. 

I hope that this is a short term problem for the MRT. I like using Bangkok's mass transit. The trains and subway are clean, air-conditioned, and fast. The Purple Line goes to a part of the Bangkok metropolitan area that is woefully underserved by mass transit and suffers from horrible traffic gridlock, so it should be a winner. 

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