Behind the Scenes at Bangkok Railway Station
Many of you will know that this is going to be a big year for the railway in Thailand. Bang Sue Grand station will finally take over as the Bangkok rail hub for all long distance trains. A modern airport like station, it will offer passengers a rather different experience to its wonderful predecessor, Bangkok Railway Station – better known to most as Hua Lamphong. Let’s get that one out the way to start with. The original station was built where the canal is alongside Rama IV road as part of a private line which opened in 1893 and closed in 1960. It was called Hua Lamphong, also the name of the canal. The current station opened next door in 1916. I understand that when Bang Sue Grand finally opens, it will be officially renamed Hua Lamphong, so that will tie up loose ends. I’m fairly certain that travellers will get confused later this year if they ask a taxi driver to take them to ‘Bangkok Railway Station’. The places they might end up in will include Bang Sue Grand, Bang Sue Junction, Hua Lamphong and Bang Sue MRT station.
Anyway, back on the plot. After an orientation day with Richard Barrow travelling around the city by BTS (sky train) and MRT a couple of weeks ago, we agreed to meet up to see if we could get into the museum at the station, which rumour had it, may now be closed. A few days later I had a message from Richard that a private tour had been set up, which turned out into a great day. I’ll talk about our trip to Makkasan depot in another post, this one is about Hua Lamphong.
Our host for the day was the amazing Dr Siriphong, the deputy governor of the State Railway of Thailand, together with a couple of members of his team. I’d just arrived on the sleeper from Chiang Mai and was badly needing caffeine, so I met Richard at the coffee shop on the first floor, a great place to look down on passengers waiting for trains – actually quite similar to Kings Cross in that respect.
Our first stop was the museum at the front of the station. It’s actually still open to the public most of the time, the snag is reaching it. The door from the main hall is locked and shuttered, so you have to get through the gates from the road outside which look a bit off putting if you don’t know the drill. Except that today security guards open up the door for us, as guests of Dr Siriphong.
The museum is set over three levels of the station, the last up a winding iron staircase, and contains a huge number of artefacts. Clocks, crockery, ticket machines, and telegraph equipment make up just some of the exhibits on the ground floor. It’s a small space, and hopefully the museum will be able to expand as part of the plan for the station after Bang Sue Grand has opened.
On the second floor, another door is opened up and we step outside onto the roof at the front of the station. It’s a big selfie stop as you get to see close up the Italian Neo-Renaissance style, with decorated roofs and stained glass windows. Front and centre is the big electric clock. They say it’s based on Frankfurt station, but it also reminds me of St Pancras. Quite a view!
After lunch across the street (great if you are waiting for a train) we reconvened with a tour behind the scenes. Looking at the station from the outside the first point to note is the fountain. During the Second World War, this was actually an air raid shelter. The MRT line station is now directly underneath it.
Once inside, if you find the public toilets on the ground floor, you might notice some stairs that are now blocked off by metal railings. You are actually at the lobby entrance to the station hotel! Up the stairs and where reception would once have been there are doors through to the hotel bedrooms along the entire length of the station. Some of these were also once offices for railway officials. Strangely the bedrooms have what look like serving hatches at ground level, something we can’t understand why. Answers on a postcard please. And at the far end, a view of the station that many don’t see – the rear face of the roof looking out to departing and arriving trains.
The questions most might ask will be what the station will eventually become, why it hasn’t yet happened and when is it going to happen. Here is my take on it from what I learned on the day. The preferred plan is for Hua Lamphong to become an expanded museum, maybe with a hotel partner. This might also allow the continued use of the tracks, as not all trains will be able to use Bang Sue Junction, especially the preserved steam locomotives that take passengers on outings several times each year. Although Bang Sue Grand is pretty much complete, older trains with toilets that empty onto the tracks and diesel fumes do not suit the new set up – but the new Thai Chinese built ‘Ultraman’ locomotives will resolve this when they shortly come into service. This has actually been given a date (try not to hold you breath) of September 2022.
Who knows by the end of the decade it might be possible once again to stay at the station hotel and depart by steam train after breakfast? I hope so!
With thanks to Dr Siriphong and Richard Barrow – Richard is now running @ThaiTrainGuide on Twitter alongside @RichardBarrow – well worth following.