Bangkok is a city that has seen remarkably robust population growth.  Forty years ago, there were three million people in the city; ten years ago, there were just over 6 million; today, there are over 9 million residents and 6 million vehicles. The ubiquitous motorcycles account for about half of the vehicle fleet, with passenger cars, taxis, trucks, buses, and vans accounting for the rest.  While the motorcycles scoot through any openings in traffic, go the wrong way down the streets, or use the sidewalk if all else fails, larger vehicle do not have most of these options.  Motorists have been known to drive their cars on the wrong side of the road if traffic looks reasonably clear (something that I have done too, but only when I lived in Boston!)

The large population and vehicle fleet have resulted in massive congestion throughout much of the city.  Indeed, average speeds within the business and shopping districts are often as low as 10 km/hour (6 mph) and sometimes even slower.  To deal with the congestion and pollution from vehicles crawling through the city, the Thai government arranged, through concessions to private investors, for the construction of an elevated train and a subway. The elevated train, known as the BTS SkyTrain, began operation in 1999 while the subway, known as the MRT or Bangkok Metro, opened in 2005.  The SkyTrain operates on elevated tracks built above the surface streets.

The SkyTrain has two lines — the Silom (thick blue on map below) and Sukhumvit (thick green) — that meet at Siam Center, the stop for world-class shopping and luxury hotels.  The SkyTrain has three stations that have interchanges with the MRT subway (thin blue line) — Mo Chit and Asok on the Sukhumvit line, and Sala Daeng on the Silom line. The SkyTrain spans over 50 km (30 miles) on the two lines.

The doors to the train are equally spaced, even the ones between two cars.  The platforms are marked to show people who are going to board the train where they should stand so that they are not in the way of those who will be exiting the train (picture on left below.)  The trains stop precisely where they are meant to so that the doors align with the markings on the station floor.  The stations all have security officers (picture on right below) who enforce the yellow safety line and who announce each arriving train with a sharp whistle.

The SkyTrain stations are spacious, clean, safe and well-maintained.  Many of the stations have covered pedestrian walkways, called SkyBridges, that link the station to nearby office buildings and shopping centers. The exits are numbered and there are signs indicting which exit you should use to get to nearby buildings, malls, or other local destinations.

The electrified rail cars are air-conditioned, fast, clean and comfortable. Each train can carry 1,000 people at speeds up to 50 mph. Even if the train is not going that fast, it is a pretty sure bet that it is going faster than the traffic on the streets below.

Fares, which are based on distance traveled, range from 15 baht (50 cents) to 40 baht ($1.35). The fares are collected via either single-use tickets or from a magnetic card pass.  The single-fare tickets are sold through vending machines within the SkyTrain Stations.  The magnetic cards, known as SmartPasses, are purchased from a ticket office where you can also refill the card when the balance gets low.  To use the SmartPass, you simply place it on top of a sensor that is built into the turnstile that you use to enter and exit the stations.  The sensor reads the SmartPass and opens the gates that let you enter the station.  On the way out, the turnstile sensor again reads the card, calculates the fare,  deducts it from your account, displays the remaining card balance, and opens the gate to let you out.  All this occurs in the blink of an eye.

Our apartment is about 1 km (0.6 miles) from the Sala Daeng station, a walk that takes no more than 10-15 minutes. If we are lazy, we can take a taxi for about 50 baht. While my fervor for the SkyTrain might diminish during the rainy season, right now I am very fond of it as a way to get around this city.

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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