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When the Skytrain stopped, so did Bangkok

Publication Date : 26-12-2013


The latest transport breakdown has underlined the need for a network of mass-transit lines covering key locations in the city

Tuesday morning was a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of Bangkok commuters when the entire Skytrain system ground to a halt during rush hour. It was the first system-wide failure in its 14 years of operation.

Gridlock quickly gripped the capital, spreading along roads that are usually accessible by the Skytrain. Huge crowds gathered at bus stops and the MRT subway was flooded with people looking for an alternative way to work.

Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS), which operates the elevated train system, blamed the breakdown on a problem with the ongoing installation of platform screen doors, a new addition meant to enhance passenger safety. The firm's chairman, Khiri Kanchanapas, personally apologised for the hitch, which saw all trains halted from 6 to 11am. After an estimated 200,000 trips had been cancelled, full service resumed at about 1pm.

A similar problem hit Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway system earlier this month, although the disruption was not system-wide. A power failure on a train line halted services for nearly five hours on December 16, leaving thousands of passengers in limbo. Commuters were angered by the failure of the Hong Kong operator's contingency plans.

The elevated BTS and the underground MRT are Bangkok's most reliable ways of beating the traffic, especially during the morning and evening rush hours. Buses, vans, taxis, boats and motorcycle-taxis all have their disadvantages when it comes to the mass transport of commuters during peak traffic hours.

In contrast, the best and most sustainable solution to Bangkok's traffic woes is our two mass transit systems, able to whisk millions of passengers each day across the congested capital. The authorities are well aware of this, and construction of more transit lines is underway, with some scheduled to open in the next few years. However, it will take longer before we get a network of mass-transit routes to cover the entire city.

Meanwhile the exiting Skytrain and subway are absorbing all the pressure from the growing number of commuters. As such, their operators must ensure that regular maintenance and effective contingency plans are in place to deal with emergencies.

Problems like Tuesday's are rare and unexpected. The failure was tied to installation of platform doors, but we don't yet know the details. The operator needs to identify the cause and do its best to prevent it from happening again. At stake is not only the daily commute of tens of

thousands of Bangkokians but also the credibility of the BTS.

This latest transport breakdown has underlined the need for a network of mass-transit lines covering key locations of the city. That way, commuters would have an alternative route to use when one line, or even an entire system, suffers from disruption.

The capital now has two mass transit train systems and four lines. With the existing network already creaking under ever-increasing demand, more needs to be done to speed up expansion of both systems.


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