Bangkok's Skytrain an example of the good infrastructure and services Thailand needs


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It takes me just a few minutes to get to my office roughly two kilometers away. Before the Skytrain came along, the very same journey could take anywhere between 15-45 minutes.
At 2:30 p.m. on a weekday, the Skytrain in Bangkok, Thailand, was still pretty crowded. I squeezed myself into a small space near the doors, waiting to exit at the next stop. Suddenly, a cheery sound of music wafted through the air before a woman, standing not far from me, shouted a "Hello" into her tiny cellular phone.

"I'm on the train, two stops away from you," she told the caller. "Will get there in a heartbeat."

That got me thinking. Getting somewhere in a heartbeat was – at least until 1999 – a luxury no Bangkokian could afford (unless they owned a private helicopter). I remembered when this city's traffic jams topped the list of things that would come to mind when people thought of Bangkok. (The next down in that list would probably be air pollution, but that's a subject for a later discussion!).

Even now, the average vehicle speed in this city during the morning rush is roughly 18 kilometers (just over 10 miles) an hour. When I was working as a business reporter in the early 1990s, I had to allow between one and two hours for travel each time I had an appointment elsewhere in the city. Sitting idly in a taxi cab was a normal part of my everyday life then.

Things started to change dramatically after the Skytrain – what we call the elevated mass transit system here – was introduced eight years ago. It now takes me just a few minutes to get to my office from my apartment roughly two kilometers away. Before the Skytrain came along, the very same journey could take anywhere between 15-45 minutes. The Skytrain and the underground transit system we call MRT are making daily commutes by hundreds of thousand Bangkok residents much less stressful than in the past. I myself love being able to predict how long it will take me to get from Point A to Point B. It takes a lot of anxiety out of my everyday life.

Bangkok's Skytrain was introduced eight years ago, making transportation more reliable in a city known for its traffic jams.
When it comes to infrastructure development, Thailand has done very well compared with some other Southeast Asian neighbors. In fact, appropriate infrastructure, including access to power and water, has helped Thailand fuel rapid economic growth during the past three decades. Good infrastructure has made Thailand attractive to foreign investment, helped facilitate international trade, and improved the efficiency of everyday business activities. All of these led to more jobs, and more jobs led to more income for the poor. For some not-so-poor people, good infrastructure also helps them improve productivity or fulfill their lifestyles. In my line of work, staying connected with people around the globe and having easy access to public information are two very important elements. And I get to do this easily in Thailand, where high speed internet is no longer just luxury for a select few, unlike in some of the countries I had lived.

Access to infrastructure, however, is not a major issue here anymore, but instead it's the quality of infrastructure and services, according to a new World Bank report. Over the last three decades, successive Thai governments have been able to provide basic infrastructure to meet the country's economic and social needs. But as a middle-income country, Thailand's infrastructure needs also became more complex than just roads, bridges, or water supply for commercial and public use. To be competitive with other countries, Thailand needs to improve the quality of its infrastructure and reduce the cost of services. One immediate concern is that the cost of logistics in Thailand is very high due to the country's high dependency on land transport and imported energy.

You can read more about that in Thailand Infrastructure Annual Report. If you live in Thailand, some of what you will read there may ring the bell. If you live outside of Thailand, maybe you will have different opinions. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Even better, share pictures of good or bad infrastructure in Thailand, if you have one.
May 04, 2009

What an exciting post! I've been to China and India and seen how much they've invested in infrastructure. I'm very interested to see this firsthand as my wife and I are visiting in August.

May 11, 2009

I don't agree that access to infrastructure is not a major issue anymore.
Yes, if you live along the MRT or BTS lines in Bangkok, it isn't. But there are still vast parts of Bangkok that don't have access to any decent kind of transportation, and most Thai people I know still have commuting times of 1-2 hours (and that is one way, so it adds up to 2-4 hours communting time per workday)

I don't think the problem is really transportation cost. There is no need to lower prices. Do you really think people would rather spend 2 hours and pay 30 baht than spend 30 minutes and pay fifty baht?

Also, if cost would be a problem, then the trains wouldn't be as crowded as they are, because people wouldn't ride on them. But have you ever rode on a train where it wasn't at least 50% of capacity in Bangkok? Maybe occasionally on odd times, but compared to other cities, there are very few "empty trains" in Bangkok.

It just boggles my mind that there is so much potentially productive time lost in traffic and the government isn't doing more about it. If we consider that BKK has about 8 million people (other estimates are up to 11 million), and pretend as if just 10% of those spend 2 hours stuck in traffic each day, than that's 1.6 million hours a day (or 567 000 000 hours a year) that could be added to Thailand's economy.

Pichaya Fitts
May 12, 2009

I agreed that I chose the wrong words to describe Thailand’s current challenges. I should have said access to infrastructure is not as big a priority now as it used to be several decades back.

You’re right that a lot of people living in Bangkok, who are not near the mass transit lines, still spend hours commuting e ach day. But I trust that you heard of the Thai government’s plan to for the "mega projects" (any infrastructure project worth one billion baht or more), which include new rail lines to serve people in outer Bangkok. Public investment in these mega projects, however, has been delayed by the political situation and the impact of the global downturn on government revenues. In addition, the government is still trying to figure out what the best way is to involve the private sector in infrastructure financing. The Thai government also recently announced a plan to borrow from domestic and external sources to finance some of these infrastructure projects.

The term infrastructure refers to not just roads and rails, but also water supply, low-income housing, waste management system, power, and telecommunications services.

Cost is certainly not a factor for everything mentioned above, but Thailand’s international call rates are still higher than countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, India, Taiwan and Korea. And if you talk to any economist or business operator in Thailand, one of the issues they will likely raise is the high cost of logistics. Granted, one must be more careful than to generalize any complex issue. I probably was thinking of how much I paid monthly for our high-speed internet service at home, which – though faster than what we had in Papua New Guinea, still isn’t fast enough for the price we paid!

Former BTS rider
May 12, 2009

When the skytrain was being built, engineers promised that it would help reduce the city's noise pollution. Instead, the concessionaire soon installed televisions inside the cars that pump noisy advertisements that riders cannot escape. Loudspeakers on platforms also blast annoying commercials at passengers as they wait, and at residents of nearby buildings. This affects hundreds of thousands of Bangkokians every day.

The concessionaire, the Bangkok Mass Transit Public Company, claimed respond to customer complaints in its successful application for OHSAS 18001 certification, even though groups like the Quiet Bangkok campaign have called for the loudspeakers to be turned off.

The BTS should live up to its claims of corporate social responsibility and switch to silent advertising using on-screen subtitles.

April 30, 2014

Who does the BTS help? It connects upper middle-class neighbourhoods with shopping malls and business districts. In the meantime, low-income neighbourhoods continue to depend on unreliable and dangerous buses, motorcycle taxis, etc. Even in the areas it covers, the BTS serves only physically fit individuals. Imagine a mother with two or three small children trying to use it. What about the elderly? Persons with disabilities? Even someone with the weekly grocery shopping wouldn't be able to negotiate the endless stairs and escalators, only few stations have elevators. Yes, Thailand has developed its infrastructure but more often than not it has been to benefit a very specific social class

Louie M
May 05, 2017

First time to visit Bangkok this past week and was amazed on it's current infrastructure.
I am comparing it with Manila where I live and wow at 1999, I believe since then a lot has improved and train system in Manila still has a lot to go, as well as the motorway.
Hope to see improvements in Manila like what Bangkok did. Bangkok is an inspiration. :)