Thailand is a country of baby steps. With most things, change comes slowly, but it’s usually for the best, and this sentiment sums up Bangkok’s transit system perfectly.
When Bangkok’s first mass transit system opened in 1999 with 23 stations along 2 BTS lines (the light green Sukhumvit line and the dark green Silom line) the city’s population was ~6.5 million and its traffic jams were the stuff of legend. Long overdue, it was but the first step in a plan to pull the city kicking and screaming into the modern world of electrified mass transit.
Now hovering around 163 stations (thanks to new lines and extensions to existing lines) serving ~12 million people (and still fighting traffic jams), the plan is well underway, as several major new lines prepare to come online in the coming years.
The latest to be added to the brew is the new Yellow Line, a monorail system that serves the eastern suburbs of the city. It connects to the MRT blue line’s Lat Phrao station in the north, running east for 5 stations, south for a further 14 stations, and then west for the final 3 stations, connecting to the light green Sukhumvit BTS line at Samrong station.
I headed out to see how it measured up, riding it north to south on a Sunday afternoon.
As expected for a brand new line, the stations and trains are spotless. It was quite crowded when I was there with people of all ages, many of whom were taking photos of the trains, stations and general goings on, showing that there is a deep interest – if not outright pride – in the new line.
The ticketing system will be familiar to anyone who has taken Bangkok’s other train lines before. You can buy them from machines with cash, scan a QR code with an app from a Thai bank, or simply tell the ticketing staff which station you’d like to go to and pay them directly. Ticket in hand, beep yourself through the gate, and walk up to the platform. Prices have just recently been set from 15-45 baht, depending on how far you go (which kick in on July 3).
Right off the bat I was surprised to see that the train itself is unmanned, which I was not expecting. If this line runs well, one wonders if the perennially cash-strapped operators will order future updates on other lines to do away with human drivers altogether and let the machines run the whole show. But sadly, despite the lack of a driver’s compartment and thanks to a very deep ‘dashboard’, you are unable to smoosh your face up against the front window, which would have been fun.
The connection between cars has an extremely prominent accordion section that takes up fully half of the width of the carriage, but beyond that, the cars are wide and spacious and – at least on my visit – were not wrapped in ugly exterior advertising, giving you a great view out across the city through the large windows.
The ride itself was not quite smooth as silk, but not too bumpy either – somewhere between the gliding rail wheels of the BTS and the juddering rubber wheels of the Gold Line people mover.
Of course, I can’t write this without mentioning the ultra-embarrassing fact that Bangkok still does not have a single-ticket system tying its disparate lines together. Despite being announced at least 8 years ago, the program has run into – surprise – bureaucratic inertia and conflicts over the who, how and how much. We get it, fellas, it’s complicated, but every other city in the world with a rail system has figured it out already – why not us? So, if you want to ride the yellow line, you need a yellow line ticket.
That being said, apparently the yellow line’s owner, MRTA, said riders who transfer to other MRTA-operated lines (pink, orange, purple, blue) can jump to those lines without paying a flag fall charge, while transferring to non-MRTA lines will incur a flag fall charge after 30 minutes. Not sure if that applies only if you’re coming from the yellow line or if you’re coming from and going to the yellow line. Also not sure how it will work, considering many riders won’t have proof of what line they have just come from, so who knows how long this half-measure will be in effect.
I was also saddened – but not surprised – to see that Thailand remains absolutely committed to making connections between stations more difficult than they need to be. As I was exiting from the Lat Phrao MRT station to ride the yellow line, I had to go 3 levels up to the street, along a sidewalk and up an escalator to a long and undulating walkway. A further 2 escalator trips brought me up to ticketing level, for a total (horizontal) distance of about 250m. I saw that others had taken some elevators up to the ticketing level in an attached parking garage, but both solutions felt a bit slapped together and more complicated than they needed to be.
I didn’t manage to notice what type of disabled facilities the stations had, but connecting between lines would, at best, be inconvenient and time-consuming. I’m not an urban planner, but I’d like to believe ‘connection’ means more than just ‘two stations close to each other’.
Later, as the train passed underneath the airport rail link, I got flashbacks to the notoriously awful connection between that line’s Makkasan station and the Asok MRT station back in the day. In today’s case, if one wanted to change from the yellow line’s Hua Mak station to the airport rail link’s Hua Mak station, they’d have to walk about half a kilometer across some rough sidewalks and sketchy pathways to get there. It’s unclear if this will be solved with a walkway, but from what I could see, any improvement was still months away. Thankfully, the connection from the Samrong yellow line station to the Samrong BTS station was only about 150m via an elevated walkway.
Finding my bearings (heh) coming up from the MRT, I looked around for some yellow line signage and noticed some printed posters pointing me in the right direction. Useful, but you’d think at some point over the previous few years that the line has been under construction, someone would have thought to get some proper signage made.
While there is lots of room to stand up in the carriages, I did feel that there was a lack of seating space, although I didn’t count seats to compare it to other lines.
I also noticed a huge backlog of riders waiting to get out of the gates at my stop, but I’m quite sure it was just growing pains as staff and facilities get up to speed on a new line.
Objectively speaking, the transit system here is something Bangkokians can be proud of – it’s fast, efficient, clean, safe and cost-effective (although that last point is quite subjective depending on who you talk to and how far they need to go). There are problems, of course, and no transit system is without them, but overall, it’s a huge net positive for the people of Bangkok.
The majority of the yellow line runs down Srinakarin Road, a main artery that, despite the presence of a few major shopping, housing and commercial areas, has remained solidly in “the outskirts” of the city’s geography and is largely a low-rise urban sprawl of shophouses, crisscrossed sois and condos. Thanks to the yellow line, it is unlikely to stay that way much longer.