HAVE BOAT, WILL TRAVEL
City waterways help beat traffic woes
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.
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.