Bangkok sky-train passengers are excitedly rubbing their hands together. The main Sukhumwit line has been extended as far as Soi Baring in Bang-na and thousands of commuters who live on that side of the city are dreaming endlessly of an extra thirty minutes in bed each morning. Or at least they should be. The stations have all been built, the signage is in place and everything looks ready to go. The only question is when? What's the hold-up?
It's become apparent to me over the last couple of weeks that the question of ‘when?' has become a considerable source of embarrassment to the BMTS Public Company Limited and its front-line staff. Put simply - no one seems to have a fucking clue. The official website gives no inkling whatsoever; in fact it hasn't been updated since September 2009 and that was only when a webmaster decided to tinker with the merchandising section. You can now buy a cute sky-train watch and even a sky-train pillow, but for the thousands of passengers who keep the system in operation, it's a case of being treated like a mushroom - in other words, kept in the dark and fed bullshit.
I will confess that I have a vested interest in all of this. I live out in that surburban wilderness otherwise known as Samut Prakarn. The new Sukhumwit line extension will take me another three quarters of the way home compared to the situation now where I have to get off the train at BTS Onnud and then hail a cab to take me the rest of the way. I'm excited about the idea of riding another half a dozen stations, cutting down my journey time and probably saving money into the bargain. I should add that for some unfathomable reason the notorious Bangkok traffic seems to have worsened considerably over the last few weeks, particularly on parts of Sukhumwit Road and the section of Sri Nakarin Road near the Seri Centre. And that's why I'm sick of gazing longingly at those gleaming new sky-train stations and wondering when someone is going to cut the red and white tape and declare the damn things open.
BTS Rajdamri, on the Silom Line, is one of the system's lesser-used stations. I always feel sorry for the staff there because they clearly have nothing to do. Perhaps being asked to go and work at Rajdamri station is the company equivalent of being sent to Siberia. "Please don't send me there - I'll die of boredom" Regardless, it seemed a good place to start my investigation.
I crouched down to address the ticket officer through the tiny holes in the perspex screen and asked her if she was familiar with the currently unopened extension to the Sukhumwit line. She nodded in the affirmative. We'd got off to a fine start. But then came the crunch question. "When will it be open?" She adopted a look of sheer horror. Her lips moved but there were no words coming out. I got the kind of reaction I would expect if I'd asked her to remove her top and give me a quick glimpse of her puppies. "Go on darling - just for me - it's the middle of the afternoon and there's no-one about"
Eventually a male colleague came over. He looked more senior on account of his company issue blue shirt being better pressed. But he couldn't answer my burning question. Neither could two more BTS staff who decided to join in the fun. It suddenly struck me that I had unearthed one of Bangkok's darkest secrets? Further investigation was necessary.
I asked a couple of taxi drivers. Almost without hesitation, "August this year" came the reply from the first driver. "Early 2011" came the second driver's equally confident reply. You can always rely on Bangkok's cabbies to update you on all things transportation. Yes - they didn't have a clue either. I asked a couple of the staff at BTS Onnud. Surely one of them would know when the Sukhumwit extension - that great big concrete and steel monstrosity that they can almost reach out and touch from their ticket window - would be open for business. But all I could enter into my grubby little research notebook was the annoyingly vague "some time next year" and the irritating but brutally honest "sorry I don't know"
It was my own dear wife who shed a rather unexpected ray of light on this whole fiasco. There is an interesting thread on the popular Thai discussion forum Pantip.com. Unfortunately I can't read Thai so I'm reliant on my wife for translations and overall summaries. The title of the thread is "why is the BTS extension still closed?" There then follows much ranting and raving from disgruntled Thai sky-train passengers. It's comforting in a way to know that the Thais are every bit as pissed off as I am.
Much of what is being written on the thread is pure speculation and hearsay, but I do like the story of the old man and the signature. It goes something like this. Someone high up in the BTS hierarchy is responsible for the safety elements of the sky-train construction. Once the extension is up and running, if a huge lump of concrete plummets to the street below or eighty passengers are electrocuted in a freak escalator incident, this person is responsible.
The only snag is that this man - and all fingers of accusation point to it being an elderly male - will retire next year.
I can see you reading this and putting two and two together - who would want to run the risk of buggering up their golden years by foolishly signing off a test certificate? (or whatever needs to be signed off) and suddenly becoming responsible? Good Heavens! Wouldn't you rather be sitting on your front porch with a gin and it, looking out at yet another glorious Chiang Mai sunset, and not have the fear of picking up the phone and being told "shit Bill, one of the stations has collapsed"?
As I mentioned earlier - the story is nothing but rumor and idle gossip, yet there's a familiarity to the tale that will strike a chord with any Bangkok old hand. Yes, that time-honored lack of accountability has reared its ugly head once again. Meanwhile, those of us ‘stranded' in the Samrongs and the Bang Nas continue to dream of that moment when the ‘rot fai faa' connects us to the rest of the world and whisks us into downtown Bangkok with a minimum of fuss. I only hope it's worth waiting for.