To build a subway in a city like Bangkok which is flooded several days per year, doesn’t seem like such a brilliant idea. But it’s there now. Three years after Bangkok got its Sky Train, which worms its way on the second floor through the city, another train will soon worms its way two floors below the street level.
And no, it won’t be flooded. Apart from the tunnel system being watertight itself, all entrances are raised well above the highest level of flooding ever measured in Bangkok. You will always have to go up stairs about 1.30 meters before you can go down stairs into the Tube.
Danish businessmen in Thailand were on Wednesday 1 October 2003 treated to a preview of the impressive construction project which in its entirety is the largest project ever in Thailand. The guided tour was organized by Danish Thai Chamber of Commerce and 25 members had taken up the offer.
After a briefing at the central control building near Thailand’s National Cultural Centre at the Rama 9 Road intersection with Rachadapisek Road, members were taken down the nearby station to see the shopping centre three floors below and finally the platform where the tracks run four floors below street level.
After the showing, members could get back into their cars and while stuck in the afternoon traffic dream of how many more hours in the office or with their families the new subway will give them when it opens next August.
The operating company BMCL has conducted a study which estimates that the public benefit of the project is around 378 billion Thai Baht. The amount includes retrieved working hours wasted in the traffic today and saved energy.
The subway is owned by Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTS). The first 20 kilometres of the project which has cost 96 billion baht has been divided into a Northern and a Southern stretch and financed mainly on Japanese credits.
The Danish-British engineering company Arup has been involved in the construction of the Northern stretch. Arup’s assignment has been to drill the two mostly parallel running tunnels with a diameter of 6 meters each and for 10 kilometres, to construct the nine subway stations on their part of the line and a parking building with a capacity of 2000 cars.
A multi-national team of more than 100 Arup engineers and architects has been involved in the project since the contract was signed in 1996. The team has been responsible for alignment, geotechnics, civil and structural design, tunnel ventilation, electrical, mechanical and public health systems, fire detection and prevention, and co-ordination with other design contractors.
The southern line running from the control building to Hua Lampong, Bangkok’s Central train station, is about the same length and has nine more subway stations.
In geotechnical circles, Bangkok soil is famous for being very flat and uniform. The first layer from the surface to about 15 m down is soft clay. Then follows a stiff clay layer of about 15 to 25 m. Arup avoided digging tunnels in the soft clay, and ran about 90% of the tunnels through the stiff clay about 21 m from the surface.
The digging has been conducted from shafts which have in most cases been dug where later the stations or ventilation facilities were going to be constructed. Most of the structure and the stations are located below some of Bangkok’s most busy streets so an important consideration has been to disrupt the traffic flow on the surface as little as possible during the construction.
While most Bangkokians are worried about the possibility of the system being flooded, the danger associated with fire is actually more serious. Especially the smoke from a fire could be fatal if very powerful ventilation systems had not been installed throughout the tunnel system and the stations. All stationer are also equipped with smoke sensors and firefighting equipment and detailed evacuation plans have been made which would quickly bring the people up on the ground surface in case anything should happen – whether an accident or an act of terror.
The stations have all escalators as well as regular stairs and lifts, ticket selling offices, and automatic access gates to the train escalators down to the train platforms. Most platforms have parallel tracks. Only a few places where the space between foundations of existing building leave very limited space has it been necessary to build the north and the south going platforms on top of each other. The platforms are 150 – 200 meters long with glass walls and automatic doors between the platform and the tracks.
The trains will depart every 2 – 6 minutes depending on the time of the day and the speed between stations will be 35 kilometres.
Several of the stations have been equipped with shopping malls halfway down to the racks. Among the exceptions is the station under the central train station Hua Lampong where a museum for the history of the railway in Thailand will be built. It all started out gloriously around the turn of the century during the reign of King Chulalongkorn with Danes and Danish technology in the forefront. But in modern times the state railway of Thailand has been allow to sink into a corrupt state of neglect where instead buses, coaches, private cars and domestic air routes had been given higher priority.
Altogether, the projected lines of the subway comprise 80 kilometres of railroad lines. The first 20 kilometres about to be ready for inauguration is the “blue line initial”. Its centre is the control building near the intersection of the east-west going Rama 9 Road and the north-south going Ratchadapisek Road.
To the north from this intersection, the line follows Ratchadapisek, passes by Suthisarn Road up to Lad Prao Road where it turns west and follows Lad Prao to Phaholyothin Road then turns south down to Chatuchak weekendmarket where there is an interchange with the Sky Train. Further west it passes by the main coach station serving the North, West and South of Thailand until it reaches and ends at the regular trainstation Bangsue from where passengers may change to the rundown diesel trans of the SRT which connects the Thai capital with the Malaysia border near Penang.
To the south from the Rama 9 depot the line again follows Rachadapisk underneath Phetchburi Road and down to the Asok-Sukhumvit crossing where the intersection with the Sky Train will be a very busy spot. Following Rachadapisek, the line will pass by the Queen Sirikit Centre until it reaches Rama 4 Road. Here it will turn west and follow Rama 4 pass by Silom Road, Surawongse Road all the way to Hua Lampong which is the endstation for this initial line.
The next line to be constructed – ”blue line extension south” – be 14 kilometres long and continue from Hua Lampong to the Chao Phaya River and in a tunnel connect the west side of the Bangkok metropolis with the east side. The line will end out near the new middle ringroad build by the Norwegian civil engineering company Norconsult. The start on the construction on this line will be in 2005 and the line will be ready for inauguration in 2010.
The operation of the subway has been awarded BMCL which holds the concession for the next 25 years. BMCL’s investment of 36 billion baht is not part of the 96 billion baht invested by MRTA in the construction of the subway. BMCL’s own the trains, have constructed the signalling system, the passenger payments system the office facilities and everything else related to the operation of the subway.
The investing major banks were initially promised a return of 17 percent of their investment over the 25 year concession period, but they can forget about that. The initial estimates of 400000 passengers a day have been revises based on the Sky Train experience. Today, estimates are only 230,000 passangers daily – or close to half the original estimate. At that time it was further expected that thje numbers would rise to 600 000 passengers daily in 2010 and be 800 000 per day when the concession period expires in 2020.
At the same time, BMCL still talks about ticket prises of 13 – 38 baht depending on the distance but nobody should expect this to remain that cheap when the trains start running and the business will have to be profitable.
The fist of the initial 19 trains ordered from Siemens was delivered on 15 October 2003 flown in by a huge Russian cargo plane from Austria and received in Bangkok by among others Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
BMCL is currently busy redefining the term ”soft opening in April 2004” to ”test driving in April 2004”. The big official opening day has now been set for H.M. Queen Sirikit’s birthday on 12 August.2004. As noone will dare miss this date, interested Danes can safely buy their airtickets now if they wish to experience one of Asia’s most impressive engineering works in modern times. So far, more than 30,000 professionals – and 25 Danish businessmen – have had the chance for a preview.
Danish diesel locomotives made history
It is not the first time Danish technology and companies have been involved in mass rapid transit and railway systems in Thailand.
It made headlines from Singapore to Bangkok, when the State Railway of Thailand in May 1932 successfully demonstrated the superior technology of its newly acquired six Danish diesel locomotives on the long distance route all the way from Bangkok to Singapore and back.
Ten years earlier, Thailand had acquired its very first diesel locomotive on a test basis. Even the United States had at that time not even thought of changing their old steam engines to the new technology. Satisfied with the diesel locomotives, Thailand then in 1930 ordered the six new, Danish diesel locomotives for passenger trains and one more especially designed locomotive for freight trains.
When delivered in the autumn of 1931, they were first put to test on the tough and uphill Bangkok-Chiangmai railroad. Pleased with their performance, the Danish locomotives were then employed on the rails to and from all the other major provincial capitals of Thailand.
A key person behind the decision to buy the Danish equipment was the then Chief Engineer of SRT, a Dane called H.A.K. Zachariae. Mr. Zachariae had first come to Thailand in 1907 and – like so many other Danes at that time – soon rose to his prominent position within the administration.
Zachariae, however, personally disagreed with the revolution in 1932 that changed Thailand to its present constitutional monarchy. Consequently, he left Thailand at the end of December that year.
But his job was done. No other country in all of Asia had at that time embraced the new technology and Thailand’s neighbours were watching closely. The request for demonstration of the new train on the route to Singapore in 1932 came from Malaysia.
Of course, Denmark’s consul to Thailand was among the prominent passengers on the very first train. One can only imagine his excitement of being pulled along the track by a Danish supplied locomotive and sleeping in the luxurious 1st Class sleeping carriages build of teak wood, which was likewise delivered from Denmark.
The trip went smoothly until shortly before arriving back in Bangkok when the locomotive hit a water buffalo on the track and had its stairs up to the driver’s cabin slightly bent.
The new train initially shortened the trip down to 32 hours and later further cut the trip down to only 26 hours including half an hours stop at the Thai-Malaysian border at Padang Besar.
Denmark pioneered Bangkok’s first MRTA
In 1889, a peculiar Dane Mr. Aage Westenholz arrived Bangkok, a city he was to put his distinct mark on for decades to come.
Mr. Westenholz became the director of Bangkok Tramway Company, a British company whose first chairman was the prominent Dane Admiral Richelieu. Over the next few years Mr. Westenholz built and operated a tramway system of 6 kilometres. To pull the carriages he used 300 ponies!
In 1892 the operation was transformed into a Danish-owned company and Mr. Westenholz travelled to the United States to study electric power. When he returned he expanded the tramway and in 1894 inaugurated an electric tramway system in Bangkok – ten years before a similar system was to be seen in Denmark.
By 1901 his tramway network extended 20 kilometers and his company operated 2,800 car/miles per day to points as far from the city as Paknam, today Samutprakarn. Mr. Westenholz also brought electricity to Bangkok for household and industry consumption, but that is another story.
This Danish managed tramway system continued to operate in Bangkok until well after World War II. Unfortunately, consecutive Thai management neglected the system instead of building on and expanding the brilliantly pioneered Danish operation. The last section of the tram system was closed and the racks dismantled in 1969.
Twenty years later, in 1989 the obvious benefit to the society of a Mass Rapid Transit System in Bangkok was finally realized and plans for establishing the current MRTA had to be drawn up from scratch instead of expanding on an existing system.