HAVE BOAT, WILL TRAVEL

City wa­ter­ways help beat traf­fic woes

Bangkok Post - - FRONT PAGE -

The con­struc­tion of six elec­tric train lines in Bangkok will leave main roads al­most paral­ysed in terms of traf­fic con­ges­tion. Bangkok com­muters, nev­er­the­less, are never short of ways to travel. While pub­lic mo­tor­cy­cles and tuk-tuks pro­vide an ef­fi­cient way to zig-zag their way through traf­fic, pub­lic boat ser­vices re­main the cheap­est way to get around.

Elec­tric train line fares have thus far proved to be too ex­pen­sive for many work­ing-class Bangkokians.

Skytrain fares reach up to 59 baht and sub­way fares can cost up to 72 baht per trip.

VENICE OF THE EAST RE­NAIS­SANCE

Boat trans­porta­tion has been a hot topic re­cently.

The cur­rent gov­ern­ment and Bangkok Met­ro­pol­i­tan Ad­min­is­tra­tion (BMA) rolled out poli­cies to pro­mote canal trans­porta­tion.

Two years ago, Prime Min­is­ter Prayut Chan-o-cha floated the idea of “Venice of the East” — the idea of re­viv­ing boat trans­porta­tion in a net­work of canals in Bangkok.

To kick start the “Venice of The East” am­bi­tion, the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a boat-shut­tling ser­vice in Kh­long Phadung Krung Kasem in Septem­ber 2016.

The ser­vice is short, tak­ing com­muters from Hua Lam­phong Pier to Thewet Pier, near the Chao Phraya River.

This year, Prime Min­is­ter Prayut and the Trans­port Min­istry floated a new pol­icy of seam­less ur­ban trans­porta­tion con­nec­tiv­ity that will link elec­tric trains, buses and boats.

In ad­di­tion, BMA has sug­gested the idea of de­vel­op­ing five canals in Bangkok with a com­bined length of 15km for tourism and recre­ational use.

Of the se­lected canals, two are on the Phra Nakhon side of Bangkok with a com­bined length of 3.45km. They are Kh­long Bang Lam­phu and Kh­long Ong Ang.

The other three are Kh­long Bangkok Noi, Kh­long Chakphra and Kh­long Mon on the Thon Buri side with a com­bined length of 11.5km. They were se­lected from a to­tal of 1,161 canals in the cap­i­tal. The whole project will cost 473 mil­lion baht.

WEB OF CANALS BUT FEW OP­ER­A­TORS Bangkok was orig­i­nally a canal town. There are 1,161 canals with a to­tal length of 2,272km. In the past, canals were main trans­port routes where peo­ple com­muted by boat.

Cur­rently, there are only three routes for canal and river trans­porta­tion — Kh­long Saen Saep, Kh­long Phasi Charoen and the Chao Phraya River.

Thirty years ago, there was canal trans­porta­tion on Kh­long Lat Phrao but the ser­vice ended.

To­day, the canal that still sees heavy daily traf­fic is Kh­long Saen Saep, which has a boat ser­vice run­ning from the eastern out­skirts of Bang Kapi, cut­ting through the busy area of Phetch­aburi, and stop­ping at Phan Fah Bridge in the old town.

From the north­ern to west­ern ar­eas of Bangkok, the Chao Phraya Ex­press Boat, which runs from Non­thaburi to Thanon Tok, has served com­muters for over 40 years and in the past 15 it has func­tioned as a con­nec­tion point with the BTS Skytrain at Sathon.

Tourists take it for sight­see­ing, but the boat is in­dis­pens­able to thou­sands of com­muters who live in the north­ern sub­urbs of the cap­i­tal.

An­other route is Kh­long Phasi Charoen, run­ning from Phet Kasem 49 Pier to Wat Pak­nam Phasi Charoen Pier. The 11km-long route be­gan op­er­a­tions two years ago.

It has walk­way ac­cess from Taksin-Phet Kasem Pier to the BTS Skytrain at Bang Wa Sta­tion.

THE RE­AL­ITY OF THE CANAL

Among a hand­ful of wa­ter trans­porta­tion ser­vices, the most widely used is the Kh­long Saen Saep Ex­press Boat ser­vice.

The ser­vice has been known for its af­ford­able fare. It charges each pas­sen­ger a max­i­mum of 20 baht.

The 18km-long boat ser­vice runs from the eastern out­skirts of Bang Kapi, cut­ting through the busy area of Phetch­aburi and stop­ping at Phan Fah Bridge in the old town.

The ser­vice be­gan in 1990 and now serves around 40,000 com­muters a day.

How­ever, the canal’s pub­lic boats are no­to­ri­ous among reg­u­lar users for pos­ing sev­eral health haz­ards.

Aside from the loud noise of the en­gines and fre­quent diesel fumes, pas­sen­gers risk fall­ing into the pol­luted canal be­fore even get­ting into the boats them­selves.

The typ­i­cal board­ing process in­volves pas­sen­gers hav­ing to grab ropes and step­ping on board with a gap be­tween the boat and the pier.

There are sev­eral recorded in­stances of pas­sen­gers fall­ing into the canal.

In July, a woman fell into the wa­ter at the con­gested Pratu­nam Pier af­ter re­port­edly be­ing told by staff to quickly get onto a boat.

Staff soon threw a lifebuoy tire into the wa­ter for the woman to grab, but an­other pas­sen­ger had to jump in to help her back up to the pier.

Last Novem­ber, a ticket ven­dor for the boat net­work drowned af­ter fall­ing into the canal. A boat also ex­ploded in 2016 from a gas leak, in­jur­ing over 60 peo­ple.

At least five peo­ple have died from in­ci­dents re­lated to the boats’ ser­vices dur­ing its 28 years of op­er­a­tion.

Fam­ily Trans­port Co, the firm which owns and op­er­ates the Kh­long Saen Saep Ex­press Boat ser­vice, has thus far cov­ered all costs for each in­ci­dent.

De­spite the in­ci­dents, daily rid­er­ship has still in­creased since the con­struc­tion of sev­eral elec­tric train lines in Bangkok be­gan.

CANAL FEEDER

Chao­valit Me­tayapra­pas, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Fam­ily Trans­port told the Bangkok Post that the com­pany has tried to im­prove safety.

Re­spond­ing to a ques­tion about ac­ci­dents, he said: “No one wants th­ese un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dents to hap­pen,” he said, adding his firm has drawn harsh crit­i­cism from pas­sen­gers.

“Our boats have un­der­gone at least eight mod­i­fi­ca­tions since Fam­ily Trans­port started the busi­ness. In each case, the changes were made af­ter col­lect­ing feed­back from pas­sen­gers,” Mr Chao­valit told the Bangkok Post.

The most re­cent revamp, made early last year, in­volved in­creas­ing safety by fix­ing just one spot for en­ter­ing and ex­it­ing boats, in the mid­dle of the ves­sel.

Steps have also been in­stalled, some­thing pre­vi­ous boats did not have. The de­sign of past boats al­lowed pas­sen­gers to hop on from any side.

New boats also in­clude padded, non-ig­nitable foam in­side the boat’s struc­ture for a slow sink in times of emer­gency, and bet­ter seats thanks to the larger size of the to­tal body.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Chao­valit, the firm has a to­tal of 72 boats, 60 of which are in reg­u­lar op­er­a­tion. He said daily pas­sen­ger num­bers have in­creased from around 40,000 to over 50,000 pas­sen­gers per day in re­cent times, co­in­cid­ing with the con­struc­tion of in­fra­struc­ture projects in the cap­i­tal.

How­ever, only 16 boats have been re­con­fig­ured. At present, Fam­ily Trans­port has the ca­pac­ity to mod­ify only one boat per month, since the firm does not have enough money, he added.

LACK OF STATE SUP­PORT

“We are the sole op­er­a­tor of the ser­vices in this canal, but we have not re­ceived much sup­port from the gov­ern­ment,” Mr Chao­valit said. “Main­te­nance of the boats and piers is all done with the com­pany’s funds, as there are no di­rect sub­si­dies from the gov­ern­ment for th­ese boat ser­vices, un­like the Skytrain or sub­way sys­tem.”

The Saen Saep canal boat ser­vices were in­tro­duced in 1990 as one of then-Bangkok gover­nor Maj Gen Cham­long Srimuang’s city-de­vel­op­ment poli­cies. How­ever, Mr Chao­valit said most of the safety is­sues stem from the gov­ern­ment “for­get­ting about boat op­er­a­tors”.

He added it is “im­pos­si­ble” for him to ask for loans from banks be­cause pub­lic boats are not seen as a valu­able as­set, although his firm makes around a 7-8% profit from yearly ex­penses.

The Ma­rine De­part­ment, which over­sees ma­rine trans­port un­der the Trans­port Min­istry, could not be reached for com­ment on the mat­ter.

SAFETY OF COM­MUTERS

Pakathip Lam­san­thia, 25, be­gan us­ing the canal ser­vices around seven months ago. She said the re­cent changes to the boats have made her feel safer, be­cause pas­sen­gers will be forced to calmly en­ter the boats from one spot in­stead of fran­ti­cally hop­ping in to get a quick seat.

How­ever, she raised con­cerns over the new boats’ sin­gle en­trances, cit­ing the dif­fi­culty pas­sen­gers would have evac­u­at­ing in the case that the boats sink or cap­size.

“There should be some sort of sharp ob­ject to slice open the tough ma­te­rial on the roof of the boat, to en­sure pas­sen­gers can get out from the top,” she said. “The new boats have metal safety bars fixed on the sides, which could ac­tu­ally make it harder for peo­ple to es­cape.”

Nithi­nan Phuangsan­thia, an 18-year-old stu­dent, has only been us­ing the ser­vices for three months. She said she has wit­nessed some­one fall into the wa­ter due to not grab­bing the pro­vided rope be­fore board­ing a boat, and be­lieves more life vests need to be placed on the boats for safety.

Thanakorn Akkara­narat, a 41-year-old Pratu­nam Pier-mas­ter un­der the Ma­rine De­part­ment, said each boat has a rec­om­mended ca­pac­ity of 120 pas­sen­gers. How­ever, pas­sen­ger num­bers can in­crease to 150 per trip dur­ing rush hours, he added.

“It is highly un­likely that the boats will cap­size, be­cause they can teeter up to 45 de­grees,” he said. “But some­times when the boats are re­ally packed, it may give off a scary and dan­ger­ous im­age.”

Mean­while, Mr Chao­valit said Fam­ily Trans­port may con­vert their Saen Saep canal net­work into a tourist boat ser­vice in the fu­ture.

The com­pany is pin­ning hope on the rise of rid­er­ship com­ing from more con­nected elec­tric trains in the fu­ture.

Our boats have un­der­gone at least eight mod­i­fi­ca­tions since Fam­ily Trans­port started the busi­ness. In each case, the changes were made af­ter col­lect­ing feed­back from pas­sen­gers.

CHAO­VALIT ME­TAYAPRA­PAS, MAN­AG­ING DI­REC­TOR OF FAM­ILY TRANS­PORT

SKIRT­ING THE RUSH HOUR: The gov­ern­ment is try­ing to re­vive boat trans­porta­tion in the cap­i­tal. Bangkok boasts 1,161 canals with a length of 2,272km.

VIP CRUISE: Prime Min­is­ter Prayut Chan-o-cha rides an elec­tronic boat in Septem­ber to pro­mote canal trans­porta­tion in Bangkok, part of the gov­ern­ment’s seam­less con­nec­tiv­ity pol­icy.

ALL ABOARD: Kh­long Saen Saep Ex­press Boat is the most used canal boat ser­vice. It be­gan in 1990 and now serves up to 50,000 com­muters a day.

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