It won at least a 30-day reprieve, but there’s no doubt Bangkok’s historic Hua Lamphong railway station’s last days are counting down.
The writing went up on the wall way back in 2006 when the government approved plans for the Red Line electric-train project and construction of the Bang Sue Grand Station, both of which are now operational. For 15 years, Thailand has planned to make Bang Sue its main rail terminal. Only the incompetence of the latest administration is forestalling that goal.
The Bangkok Railway Station, as it’s officially known, was set to close Dec. 23. Yet days before the planned transfer of the last trains to Bang Sue, commuters still groused they weren’t ready and the government caved.
A Dec. 20 meeting chaired by Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob with the State Railway of Thailand, mass-transit and other officials decided to stay the closure of the old rail station for at least a month to allow for yet another study on the impact of rail services on commuters and the operations of the suburban Red Line.
Saksayam instructed the panel conducting the impact assessment to submit its findings within 30 days, during which train services will terminate at Hua Lamphong as usual. An initial plan to curtail service to just 22 commuter lines was shelved and all 46 current services will continue.
Many rail commuters never want services at Hua Lamphong to end, as they work in downtown Bangkok and would be forced to pay for MRT or BTS tickets if their train ended at Bang Sue. Currently, most are paying only 12 baht for return tickets a day.
Conservationists also are skeptical of pledges by the government not to demolish the old station building, which they regard as a historic piece of architecture, and turn the site into another shopping mall. They want the terminal preserved as a museum.
According to the Transport Ministry, ending all rail services at Hua Lamphong will ease traffic congestion in Bangkok caused by dozens of trains stopping traffic at level crossings all day and night.
105 Years Downtown
Now almost universally referred to as “Hua Lamphong”, the Bangkok Railway Station has been beat near the heart of downtown Bangkok since it opened on June 25, 1916. It also has grown substantially in the past century. The station now sprawls over 120 rai in Rong Mueang, Pathumwan District, surrounded by the Mahanak Canal to the north, Rama IV Road to the south, Rong Mueang Road to the east and Phadung Krungkasem Canal to the west.
Very un-Thai in design, the station most closely resembles the Frankfurt, Germany rail station, which was admired by King Rama V, who ordered the construction of the station following his European tour in 1907. Its most iconic feature is the classical curved roof with stained glass designed by Mario Tamagno, an Italian architect who also designed Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall and Neilson Hays Library.
Construction of the station’s main building began in 1910, the final year of Rama V’s reign. Its neo-renaissance design is dominated by the Italian-style dome. A large clock over the entrance was made to order and spans 1.6 meters in diameter.
The Bangkok Railway Station also marked Thailand’s entry to the modern era under forward-thinking Rama V, also known as King Chulalongkorn. It opened at a time when cars and airplanes were still a rare sight in Thailand.
Not the First Hua Lamphong
What many people don’t now is that Hua Lamphong was not Bangkok’s first rail station at that location, and not the first with that name.
Both stations took their names from the old district in which they were built. History books indicate Hua Lamphong was once a vast stretch of land where cows grazed beneath the shade of datura trees.
In Thai, the word for datura is “Lamphong”, while cows are called “Wua”. The pronunciation morphed from Wua to Hua over time, and it stuck to the rail stations built there.
The original Hua Lamphong station was located on the traffic island in front of the current terminal and marked the terminus of a privately owned rail line, built in 1893, that stretched about 30 kilometers from Bangkok to Samut Prakan’s Pak Nam District until it closed in 1960.
With the private station gone, the Bangkok Railway Station took over the Hua Lamphong moniker and expanded.
It repeatedly has been refurbished to keep pace with growing demand and modern trends. Capacity of its platforms and ticket counters has been boosted and more than 200 trains once served well over 100,000 passengers at day during peak traveling seasons.
Conservationists want to see the entirety of the main terminal converted into a rail museum, something that’s unlikely to occur, as the cash-strapped State Railway of Thailand has its eyes on commercial development.
The only thing the SRT has committed to so far is that it will not demolish the building (to replace it with yet another shopping mall) and that at least part of the building will be converted into a museum.
No details have been provided, but there is little doubt that the station’s artistic decor and heritage architecture merit conservation. What many don’t realize, though, is that the station already houses a time capsule of train history.
The Thai Railways Museum boasts fascinating exhibits that showcase Thailand’s long love affair with rail travel. Featured are old tools from the steam age, cardboard train tickets, signaling lamps and benches made from decommissioned sleepers. Visitors can even journey back in time at a re-created platform to experience train travel as their ancestors knew it.
As of this writing, there’s still time to visit and photograph the landmark station. The SRT even hosted an official photo walk on its intended closure day. But how much longer it operates past Jan. 23, 2022 remains a mystery.