Rolling into the future
In January 2021, a new $1 billion transit hub in Bang Sue is set to usurp Hualamphong as Bangkok's main railway station. Photographer Tim Russell guides us through the last months of this iconic structure through a collection of his images
Words and images by Tim Russell
“[Hualamphong] is one of the most carefully maintained buildings in Bangkok. A neat cool structure, with the shape and Ionic columns of a memorial gym at a wealthy American college, it was put up in 1916 by the Western-oriented King Rama V. The station is orderly and uncluttered, and, like the railway, it is run efficiently by men in khaki uniforms who are as fastidious as scoutmasters competing for good-conduct badges.” – Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975)
The luxurious Japanese-built Eastern & Oriental Express sits on platform three, as porters scurry around restocking its galley and laundry before it reembarks on its journey south to Malaysia and Singapore.
On platform seven, two orange-robed young monks laugh and somewhat incongruously take selfies. Platform nine is crammed with backpackers buying last-minute snacks and drinks from vendors before catching the morning train south to Hua Hin. While on platform twelve, hairdressing students give free haircuts to needy Bangkokians under the watchful eye of their tutor.
This is Bangkok’s iconic Hualamphong railway station and, as the old tagline of British tabloid newspaper News of the World ran, “all human life is there”.
But as Thailand slowly improves its rolling stock and plans high-speed domestic and international rail links, Hualamphong’s creaking infrastructure and bottleneck location are rendering it increasingly unsuitable as the country’s main rail hub.
Today, a brand new USD$1 billion rail terminal – Bang Sue Central Station, 11km from Hualamphong in the north west of the city – is due to be in operation by January 2021 to take its place. It will host 26 platforms over four floors, making it the largest in Southeast Asia.
Starting in 2021, Hualamphong’s life as Bangkok and Thailand’s main transit hub will come to an end as the old station is gradually transformed into a museum – much to the delight of local car drivers long-irked by the traffic caused by level crossings leading out the city, but to the chagrin of travellers, photographers and railway buffs alike.
A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars; it’s where the rich use public transportationGustavo Petro, mayor of Colombian capital Bogota
Opened in 1916, Hualamphong is one of Bangkok’s most beautiful and beloved buildings, with it apparently one of the late King Rama IX’s favourite structures in the city. Designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno, who had a hand in several other public buildings built in the city around this period – including the famous Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall – the station today handles over 60,000 passengers per day, many of whom gaze in awe at its stained glass windows, arched roof, and magnificent, if aged, main hall.
To arrive at or depart from Hualamphong is to go back to a time when rail was king and when a train journey was a real adventure – and in Thailand, with its creaking but charming rolling stock and its somewhat cavalier approach to timetables, it still is. As Mark Smith, the British train guru behind the exhaustively comprehensive global rail site seat61.com, puts it, Hualamphong is “a grand historic portal for rail adventures”.
But today, Bangkok is a city where the car is king, and where the famous axiom of Gustavo Petro, mayor of Colombian capital Bogota (“a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars; it’s where the rich use public transportation”), is an impossibly idealistic daydream.
Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise to see the city’s rail travellers – generally poorer citizens mixed in with curious or budget-conscious tourists – shunted out to the outskirts, to avoid inconveniencing motorists.
“Bang Sue is 11km out of town, so it will mean a long transfer by regular taxi or metro, and effectively a direct train will become an indirect journey with a change of train at Bang Sue,” a wistful Smith tells Southeast Asia Globe. “And however vast and impressive, the modern terminal will lack the character of its predecessor.”
Thai rail buff and trainspotter Natsiwat Thongchan puts the blame for the move onto the city’s exploding car culture.
“The station is charming, and I don’t want it to close”, he says. “When trains converge at Bangkok Station [Hualamphong], it causes cars to be delayed waiting for the train to pass before the cars can go … therefore causing heavy traffic problems, and car users complain.
“My view is why don’t we control the number of cars filling up the city – the train was here before the roads!”
It’s not just rail buffs who love Hualamphong – the station, with its constant parade of humanity and its ever-shifting natural light, is a major draw for local photographers. On any visit you’ll find dozens of people shooting passengers, the trains and the architecture, making it one of the most photographed places in the city.
In 2016, Thai street photographer Rammy Narula even published a book, Platform 10, which features images taken on the same platform at the same time every day to take advantage of particularly favourable light.
“I love everything about Hualamphong. The characters, the light, the lines, the colour,” said Narula in a 2016 interview. “It’s a slow moving place making it feel like you can really get into it at your own pace. People are friendly and don’t care about photographers so much, so you can really try to capture the essence of the place without worrying about what your presence is doing to it.”
Even after Bang Sue Central Station opens, the older train models will be unable to stop there because the platforms are too high, and they use old ‘open’ toilets that empty directly onto the tracksTrain enthusiast Falatino Estrada
But there is some consolation for Asian train enthusiasts like Falatino Estrada, in that it will take Thailand well beyond 2021 to replace its old rolling train stock, unsuitable for use at the brand new Bang Sue station.
“Hualamphong is a legend that is not ready to end yet,” says Estrada. “Even after Bang Sue Central Station opens, the older train models will be unable to stop there because the platforms are too high, and they use old ‘open’ toilets that empty directly onto the tracks. We will have to wait a long time before all the rolling stock can be improved.”
Recent reports also suggest that a limited service will continue on certain, as yet unspecified, lines from the station. But information surrounding this remains vague.
So it seems reports of Hualamphong’s imminent demise – sadly inevitable though it may be – are somewhat premature. The joys of crawling out of the station on a rickety old train, or spending a couple of hours drinking coffee on the viewing gallery above the main hall and photographing the station and its denizens, should be with us for a few years yet.
More of British photographer Tim Russell‘s Hualamphong Station and Chinatown series of photographs can be viewed on his website.