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Skytrain Helps Bangkok Commuters Glide Over Traffic - 2002-09-07

Bangkok, famed for its Buddhist temples and royal palaces, has long had a more dubious reputation for congested and never-ending traffic. But for many commuters, traffic jams are a thing of the past as they ride above the city's main thoroughfares on Bangkok's skytrain.

Bangkok's traffic jams and highway snarls are legendary. During the boom of the 1990's, morning commutes stretched to better than two hours, even for drivers who started at 5 am for trips of only 10 or 20 kilometers.

The economic good times spurred vehicle buying, but highway construction could not keep up with the growing number of cars on the roads. The Asian economic crisis that began in 1997 slowed car sales for a few years, but car ownership is again on the rise. More than one-million cars crowd Bangkok's roads, one for every 10 people in the city of 11 million. The numbers of cars is likely to double or triple over the next 15 years. New car registrations are already running at 15,000 a month.

But an increasing number of Thai commuters rise above the daily grind of congested roads, by riding the country's first elevated rail system.

Built at a cost of more than $1 billion, the 23-kilometer system allows commuters to move above Bangkok's roads at about 35 kilometers an hour. Cars down on the ground, in contrast, inch along at about five kilometers an hour during peak periods.

The privately run Bangkok mass transit system, or BTS, has rescued commuters who have long been trapped in cars and buses. BTS riders even avoid the floods that clog the roads during each rainy season.

Araya Phanonpriat, a bank worker, is a satisfied customer when it comes to BTS travel. "Bangkok, the traffic is very jammed, so this kind of transportation, is the time used is very short time; I can go home within 15 minutes… So it's very comfortable, convenient," he says.

But the rail system had its detractors, who said it was too expensive. Some critics complain that traffic pollution is getting trapped under the railway spans that run above the main roads.

Thailand's first urban commuter railway opened in December 1999, less than three years after construction started. Initially, commuters were slow to jump on board. Many people, stung by Asia's economic crisis, were unwilling to spend more to ride the train than they paid to ride state-run air-conditioned buses. The train fares, which average about 50 cents, are roughly double the bus fares.

But BTS's chief operating officer, Paul Anderson, says the system has proven its early critics wrong. "When we opened, our weekday average was about 140,000 passengers a day. And this month (August) it is 320,000," he says. "So we have had a remarkable increase in patronage, reversing all the trends of all the mass transit systems in Asia."

Mr. Anderson says the fact that roads remain congested helps build support for more efficient, low-polluting transit systems. "Each day there are about 22 million trips on public transport in Bangkok. We are currently carrying a small percentage of that. So, in the future when the rail infrastructure is implemented we can see that the number of trips and the market will be growing, even without the population growing, just because of suppressed demand," he says.

Mr. Anderson says the BTS could attract as many as one-million passengers a day once planned extensions are completed. Another boost will come when a new 20-kilometer subway rail service opens in 2004.

He says the BTS will be a model for urban transport policy in the years to come, not only in Asia but also worldwide. "Worldwide, we can see the damaging effects of pollution, and the costs to the economy in terms of lost foreign exchange through purchasing fuel. And that's something that will become more and more expensive over time."

Transport consultant Philip Sayeg says the BTS already is paying off for Bangkok. Mr. Sayeg did a World Bank study on the system, and says both fuel consumption and environmental damage are falling.

The study found the BTS lured 40 percent of its commuters from bus travelers, 10 percent were car drivers and eight percent normally traveled by taxi. About 36 percent of the passengers were people who ordinarily would not have traveled into the city. "In other words, the railway itself makes communication and mobility a lot easier. So people are doing trips they wouldn't have made or they would have liked to but not made before," he says.

But while the rail network is liberating many commuters from traffic gridlock, the system still needs to carry 600,000 passengers a day to clear its debt to international and Thai creditors. Even now, negotiations are underway to reschedule the debt.

And the BTS is expanding its reach. The train's concourses connect right to key department stores and entertainment venues, another lure for people who otherwise would have to hunt for parking spots or walk through Bangkok's heat from a bus stop.