220th Meeting - Tuesday, March 12th  2002

"The Railways of Thailand"

A slide presentation and talk by Robert M. Boer

Summary of Robert’s talk and presentation:

Your Convenor writes: Robert showed 94 slide images of the Railways of Thailand to illustrate this talk; alas far too many for me to be able to describe each one in detail in this summary. You had to be there. Here is my edited version of the text of Robert's presentation.

 As an author, railway photographer and a life-long rail enthusiast, I would like to show you some slides of the Railways of Thailand and tell you something about its development, from its inauguration to the present day.

Slide 2: Hua Lamphong Monument. Beginning at the beginning. The marker for mile zero is in front of Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok. Once the station had a nice garden where people just arrived from the provinces could take a seat and rest before venturing into the metropolis. These days however the station looks somewhat dejected due to the subway construction beneath it. The total network route is 4,041 km. A few new lines are under construction at the moment and when completed will add another 803 km. The total number of staff employed on the Thai railway system, The State Railway of Thailand, is 26,442.

Slide 3: The Rama V Monument. At the end of platform one you will find this monument commemorating the ceremony, held on March 9th 1891, in which King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, the father of the railways of Thailand, nailed the first spike.

Confronted with competing colonial interests, French and British, King Chulalongkorn decided that the Germans would build the first state line to Korat; Nakhon Ratchasima, and beyond. However, this was not the first railway operating on Thai soil. The line to Korat opened in 1896 but before this a Danish venture built a line from Bangkok to Samut Prakan, dubbed the Paknam Railway, which opened in 1893. This line eventually closed in the early 1960's. Until recently, in the middle of the Rama IV road, there was a plaque marking the site of the former station of the Paknam Railway.

Slide 7: A birds-eye view of Hua Lamphong station. Hua Lamphong station is a magnificent, European style building. The hall was designed by the German architect Karl Döhring and the front of the building by the Italian architect Mario Tamingo.

Slide 10: Hua Lamphong gallery, the former Station Hotel. In the romantic, sadly bygone days of the railway, imagine yourself leaning over the balcony in front of your room, watching trains coming and going, hissing and puffing wisps of steam, in a never ending cavalcade of nostalgia. These days, one sits and waits wherever one can but wherever you find to rest it's still an entertaining way to pass an afternoon.

Back to history for a moment. The Germans built the first state line in standard gauge; 1,435 mm, but when the British won their concession to build the railway southwards, they chose metre gauge because the already existing railway on the Malaysian peninsular was built in metre gauge. Initially this was not a problem, until that is the Rama VI Bridge over the Chao Phraya; connecting both systems, was opened. To solve this problem it was decided to convert all of the existing standard gauge track in Thailand to metre gauge; a huge operation that took 10 years, from 1920 to 1930, and a lot of money, to complete. Now Thailand and all its neighbouring countries are running on metre gauge track.

Slide 15: Clothes between the tracks. Just outside Hua Lamphong station is a densely populated area where people consider the tracks as their backyard. They come together to sit on rail and chat or, as you can see here, use the track bedding as a work place. In this case a factory that dyes old clothes indigo leaves them on the rail bed to dry in the sun.

Slide 16: A bridge over dirty water. Beyond this bridge you will find one of Bangkok's slums. Here the people live so close to the track that when a train has to stop to wait for a road crossing to clear, the kids amuse themselves by shaking hands with the passengers. On a busy afternoon people stroll along the track, stopping only to take a step out of the way as a train trundles by.

Slide 19: Steam engine in Hua Lamphong. March 26th 1986, the 90th birthday of the State Railway of Thailand, the SRT, was celebrated with a special trip to Ayutthaya. With all due pomp and ceremony, steam was once again seen in Hua Lamphong.

Slide 22: A yard full of scrap. When I came to Thailand for the first time in 1985, steam unfortunately no longer played a role in daily rail traffic. I found these decaying engines in a yard in Uttaradit.

Slide 25: Departures for fun. Since 1986, every SRT birthday, and now many other occasions, is celebrated with a steam-pulled train running to Ayutthaya and back.

Slide 29: Dead on a plinth. In addition to four working steam engines, many locomotives survive on plinths in front of stations throughout Thailand. This 1913 Swiss engine, built by SLM of Winterthur, stands in front of Chiang Mai station.

Chiang Mai station is dull compared to other stations in Thailand. Far from being a busy crossroads at the heart of network it is merely the end of the line, 751 km 420 metres from Bangkok. Apart from the few early morning arrivals and evening departures to and from Bangkok, there are two daytime trains and one local train. The local train used to take 12 hours to get to Nakhon Sawan, stopping at all 71 stations en route, but this journey has now been shortened to terminate at Pichit.

Slide 32: The turntable at Chiang Mai station. There is some confusion over the year in which the railway first reached Chiang Mai. Some books says 1920, others 1921 or even 1922. However, the best proof, in my opinion, is a turntable made by the German company Vögele of Mannheim, which is still in the yard and these days hardly used. The inscription on the side says it was made in 1922. The turntable, which in those days was worked by hand, was used to turn the steam engines around for the return journey to Bangkok.

Slide 34: A dilapidated old truck loading timber. Once the railway reach Chiang Mai a thriving goods trade began which brought prosperity to the area. Cargo was always a major part of railroad traffic, as evidenced by the number of warehouses, many of them still standing, that were built around the station. These days most goods are transported by road but in 1922 the journey to Bangkok "by road" was a long and dangerous one that took about 6 weeks traveling by elephant and boat. When the line to Bangkok first opened the journey from Chiang Mai took several days because it was considered too dangerous to travel at night so passengers had to be accommodated overnight in hotels along the line. But even this journey time was a huge improvement on the 6 weeks it took "by road". The new rail line offered Chiang Mai people a quicker, safer, more reliable, and for passengers, much more comfortable, way of transporting themselves and their goods to Bangkok.

Slides 40 & 41: A draisine. A draisine, or motor lorry, is a small rail vehicle used mostly to transport maintenance workers and their tools. Here you can see a worker lifting it on to the track.

Slide 43: Tracks through the mountains. A view from the top of Doi Khun Tan shows the track winding its way through lush vegetation.

Slide 44: Inside the tunnel. The Khun Tan tunnel is 1,362 meters long, the longest tunnel in Thailand. It was built by the German engineer Emile Eisenhofer in the beginning of the last century. A huge task undertaken by opium addicted Chinamen.

Slide 45: Emile's Tomb. At the entrance to the tunnel is the tomb of Emile Eisenhofer, 1879 - 1962, honouring not only the man who built the tunnel but also more than 1,000 men who died during its construction. When Emile's wife died in 1982, her ashes were laid to rest beside her husband's remains in the tomb.

Slide 47: On the track near the Three Pagodas Pass. Most people have read stories or seen movies about the construction of the Burma line during WW II. Here you see a piece of 'memorial track' near the Three Pagodas Pass on the Burmese side of the border. Immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent Japanese surrender, the British, fearful of its potential use for illegal trade by minorities in the area, closed a stretch of track near the Burmese border. The rest of the line, within Thailand, was sold to the Thai government for £1.5 million. They decided to rebuild the line as far as Nam Tok, near the Sai Yok Noi waterfall, 130 km from Nog Pladuk where the line branches from the mainline to Bangkok and the south. The rest was left for the jungle, and even today you can still find visible remains. Recently the SRT tried to extend the line 2 km towards the waterfall but they either ran out of funds or had second thoughts about the feasibility of the project. Today the line ends amid beautiful scenery in the middle of nowhere.

Slides 52 & 53: Trains on the trestle. The most spectacular part of the journey over the river Kwai is without any doubt traversing the wooden trestle at the Kra Sae cave near Wang Po. Maximum speed over the trestle is 5 km/hr, which gives passengers ample opportunity to hang out of the carriages and gasp at the sight of the river passing below them, and maybe give a thought to the men who were forced to build this incredible structure.

Slide 54: The Bridge. Without any doubt the Bridge over the River Kwai is the most well known and most visited railway bridge in the world. The original spans came from Indonesia and most of them are still there. Several spans were destroyed during a successful Allied bombing raid in 1944. However, after the war, the Japanese, at their own expense, replaced these spans with two larger ones. This is actually the second bridge over the Kwai. The first was a wooden, bamboo, bridge built further down stream from the present bridge. Being of light construction it could not carry heavy locomotives but it gave the Japanese limited passage over the river while this bridge was under construction. You can still see the bullet holes in the bridge support pillars. It was Pierre Boule's book and film that made this bridge famous, although when you consider the number of lives that were lost during its construction, and the construction of the rest of the 'Death Railway', it would be more accurate to call it infamous.

Slide 57: The Hell Fire Pass. Concerned by the impact of tourism on and around the Kwai Bridge, the Australians wanted to create a more peaceful memorial site in remembrance of their fallen comrades. In 1985 they started clearing a four-kilometre section of the former railway bed to create a historical trail and build a museum. The focus of their memorial is the Hell Fire Pass; the Konyu cutting, where men with no more than hammers and chisels, and often just their bare hands, cut a way for the railway. Let me tell you a short story I wrote while you look at the gorge as it is today.

Slide 58: The gorge - 'Hell and Fire'.

"It is a ghostly specter, though no-one comes to look. Legions of emaciated men work by the glimmer of torchlight and carbide lamp to break rock into pieces and beat it into the cleft to give perfect way for a train. Ghostly also the sound, the monotonous clinking of a hammers on steel wedges beaten into the unyielding rock face. But nobody will hear this either. For miles far and wide, no native village, no solitary abode, only the work camp with poor barracks roofed with dried palm leaves. Here even the sickest of the sick are forced to compete in their captor's relentless race against time. In the heat of the day the camp appears deserted save for one prisoner under guard, kept back from the gorge to dig latrines and holes for the bodies of the fight fallen dead. The Japanese must conquer the rock to complete a land supply route before their sea routes are completely lost under the bombardment of Allied attacks. Over land and by rail to maintain Fortress Burma and the delusion of a United South East Asia under one flag; the Rising Sun. That human sacrifice was required was only a side issue, or worse, not an issue at all.

After their triumphant march through The Dutch Indies and Singapore, Japan found itself with thousands of prisoners of war, who, almost without a blow, had resigned themselves to their fate and put their trust in the Geneva Convention. That these men should have surrendered so easily was an action incomprehensible to the Japanese soldier, who would yield to no-one but his Emperor. When a battle is lost, suicide is painlessly setting foot on the path of heroism. Capitulation is loss of face, forever.

To honour those who suffered and died, the Australians made the Hell Fire Pass a monument of remembrance. From Km 152 to Km 156 the track was renewed, stolen back from the jungle to create a simple walk into the past. No sensationalism, no adorning with arts or Hollywood romanticism, just there for those who came to feel the pain and suffering of those who had toiled, and died, on that naked rail bed. In its rubble still a partly rotten sleeper, steel nails, pieces of rail. Silent witnesses to the killings; one for every sleeper."

Concerned by the impact of tourism on and around the Kwai Bridge, the Australians wanted to create a more peaceful memorial site in remembrance of their fallen comrades. In 1985 they started clearing a four-kilometre section of the former railway bed, from Km 152 to Km 156, to create a historical trail and build a museum. The focus of their memorial is the Hell Fire Pass at the Konyu cutting, where men with no more than hammers and chisels, and often just their bare hands, cut a way for the railway. Here is a short story Robert wrote about the Hell Fire Pass.

Slides 60-64: Signals and wires. Until recent most of the signals were mechanical, the post connected by iron wire to a lever in the station building or a separate signal box. Unfortunately almost all of them are now replaced by electric ones, less elegant with less of the atmosphere of a real railway. Sometimes you can find the old signals in strange places, like this one used to control the traffic in and out the factory gate.

Slide 65 & 66: The token machine & Hoop on a pole. With the signals came the 'token system'. When a train was due, the staff would phone to the next station or end of the section to confirm that the section was clear. If it was, the machine released a token that was put into a small leather bag attached to a hoop. This was then passed on to the train driver. At the a station or end of a section, often without stopping or even slowing down, the driver had to drop the hoop onto a pole and pick up a new hoop with a token for the next section. A precarious part of the job. I tried this a few times and sometimes missed picking up the new token. When that happened, the train had to stop and go back to pick up the token. The section was not free for another train until the token was back in the machine.

Slides 67 & 68: An old Bangkok tramcar & A tram on Yarrowat road, circa 1960. Started in 1888 as a horse-drawn tramway, the system was electrified in 1899. It was the first system of that kind in Asia. The tramway network in Bangkok, a total of 48.5 kilometres, closed on September 30th 1968.

Slide 70: Ratchaprasong. Today the tramway is replaced by the Bangkok Transit System subway, opened on December 5th 1999. It still only runs above ground but we are assured that, at sometime in the future, it will run underground as well.

Slides 71, 72 & 73: Hopewell drawing, A 'concrete canopy' & The Hopewell tunnel. This is what it would have looked like if it had been finished. All that Hopewell left in Bangkok was a new concrete monument and a tunnel that goes nowhere.

Slides 76 - 81: Images of the past - Forgotten lines and locomotives. Here are a few forgotten memories from the past. The Tha Rua - Phra Putabat Railway and another one that left from the bank of the Chao Phraya river to Bang Bua Tong. The Sri Maharacha Timber Company's last remaining engine standing on the side of the road near the saw mill at Sri Racha. Three locomotives 'put out to grass'. These engines had been used for many years to pull felled trees out of the forest but now there is nothing left to pull out. A closed line that had once connected two sugar mills to the SRT network at Wang Khapi near Uttaradit. This steam engine is now only used by the SRT for shunting goods wagons around the yard. The last remaining narrow gauge engine, which had been used to pull wagons loaded with sugar cane, on display at the factory. Yet another monument to the past at the sugar factory at Ko Kha near Lampang. Railway history can be found all over Thailand, if you are prepared to take the time to go and discover it.

Slide 82: Mae Mo station. Back in the north and a trip to Mae Mo, made for nothing more than the joy of riding the train. I would like to conclude this evening's presentation with another story and a miscellany of some rather more candid images of the Railways of Thailand.

“In the shade of a tree time passes almost un-sensed while sitting waiting for the return train. Around the station nothing moves save a far away children's game at the waterside. Serene tranquility, only vague, far away voices slowly fading over the plain. The railway yard seems dead, lying abandoned beneath the heat shimmering above the tracks. Steel wires quiver along the track as they stir the silent signal, waiting to lift its arm. Melancholy after getting off after a ride next to an open window. Hot wind had playfully caressed the senses, and now in the distance, home and familiar countryside. Hills swathed in autumn colours. But closer, too close, an endless ribbon of refuse on the verge of the track. Polystyrene wrapping for the traveler’s convenience, tossed disrespectfully through an open window. Even the scrupulous traveler’s accountability lies belied by the train staff who had swept his carefully deposited refuse into a heap and then out of an open door. It dawdled for a while, caught on the train's turbulence, then came to rest and became prey for grateful stray dogs who celebrated on a banquet of leftovers and chicken bones. But whether Mother Nature will similarly celebrate remains a question. Synthetic waste ages timelessly. But that does not belong in the realm of Thai concern. An open door or window moving through an anonymous landscape offers no resistance to the temptation to sweep beyond your own back yard. The train comes and goes, nobody gets off, nobody gets on, certainly not the stranger. He moves on, under the delusion of certainty in the cadence of steel upon steel. When this slowly dies away in the far distance, the station retreats back into desolation, as does the sandy road twistingly disappearing into the hills. Somewhere beyond the wind blown dust, houses are hidden. Corpulent wives steam pale rice and quietly cherish a wish when the giant lizard lets his presence be known nine times in succession. Superstition keeps them going. This is what it must be. A declining word finds a line here, in the shade of a tree. In the distance the eerie echo of children's voices, a sense of game and joy in all. Tookay let's hear your call.”

Slides 83 - 94: A miscellany of images.

Robert's presentation was followed by an enthusiastic and informative question and answer session which included these contributions: The Germans were employed by the Thai Railway Department, so in fact Thais themselves built the system with the help and supervision of both German and British consultants. The railhead as a work line reached Chiang Mai in 1919. On January 1st 1921 the regular service was started. The present turntable is a replacement for a smaller one that could no longer be used when larger engines came into use. Standard gauge came as far as Chiang Mai. During the period of re-gauging, a three-rail system was installed to let the old rolling stock on standard gauge and new stock on metre gauge run on the same line. After the question and answer session the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where Robert's joy knew no bounds when Roy Hudson produced files of papers, press cuttings and letters about Emile Eisenhofer. Roy Hudson and Mrs. Eisenhofer had corresponded and met once before she died in 1982.