Siam's Northern Railway

train track
Probably the finest way to travel and to get the feel of a country is to take a train. Here, without the hectic stresses of flying, or the limited view from a seat in a bus, one can watch the passing countryside and stroll along the aisle meeting your fellow passengers. Travelling at night, the gentle motion and natural airflow are conducive to a comfortable night's sleep, waking refreshed and relaxed and ready for the coming day. Although Thailand's rail network is less comprehensive than that in many countries, there are major arterial lines penetrating all the regions of the Kingdom, just waiting to convey the traveller in comfort and ease to his or her destination. For those taking the reasonably priced train out of preference, it is worth knowing how the nation's railway network came into being.

During the period of European colonial expansion in Southeast Asia, towards the end of the 19th Century, the governments and peoples of the West became familiar with the Kingdom of Siam. Although the motives of the colonisers were far from pure, and by no means altruistic, their desire to develop commerce came to stimulate the establishment of a rail network in Siam that is still in place today. The British had already colonised Burma and Singapore and were keen to open up trade throughout the Malay peninsula. Being inveterate builders of railways, they sought to use the steel highway to minimise transit time by crossing the peninsula from east to west.

Thailand's reigning monarch of that time was King Mongkut, King Rama IV. He had studied widely for 27 years before his coronation, and was renowned for his wisdom and knowledge. During his rule, he forged strong links with the colonial powers through treaties and diplomacy, and by means of these contacts was able to resist pressure for Siam to build a trans-peninsula railway, for the benefit of the British, at a time when he deemed the nation's resources were too depleted for such a venture. The credit for establishing Siam's railways thus fell to King Mongkut's illustrious son, Rama V, King Chulalongkorn.

King Chulalongkorn was a farsighted monarch who, in his many travels abroad, had experienced the advantages of a well-run, comprehensive railway system at first hand. He realised that construction of such a network would serve many functions. It would relieve the pressure of the demanding colonial powers, it would indicate to the world that Thailand was a progressive and developing nation and it would serve as a uniting force within the country. In his own words, when officiating at the opening of another section of the railway in 1907 "The construction of railways has not only the greatest influence upon the development of a country but is also the most striking evidence of that development.....By bringing the different parts of a country within close communication the railway renders possible that close and beneficial supervision which is necessary to effective administration. By furnishing rapid and easy means of transportation, it adds materially to the value of the land and its products..... The railway wherever it goes carries with it enlightenment and encourages the growth of that national feeling, which is so important an element in the welfare of a country." By appointing advisers and experts from many European countries, the King was able to prevent any one nation attaining ascendancy, thus frustrating any colonial ambition.

The first 72 kilometer section of the national railway, from Bangkok to the former capital Ayutthaya, was opened in 1896, with construction having started 6 years earlier, and continued through to Nakhon Ratchasima in the Northeast, with services commenting in 1905. King Rama V had long cherished the dream of linking Bangkok with the Kingdom's second city, the northern capital of Chiangmai, and in the last years of his reign he witnessed the construction of the northern spur, reaching Lopburi in 1901, Phitsanulok in 1908 and Sawankhalok in 1909. King Chulalongkorn's dream of seeing the railway reach Chiangmai was dashed, as he passed away in 1910, when the northern line had reached Baan Dara junction in Uttaradit, and the completion of most of Siam's railway system was left to his son and successor to the throne, King Vajiravuth, Rama VI.

tunnel In 1916, the line to the North reached Lampang, following a meandering course through the hills from Den Chai. To reach Chiangmai, however, the railroad would have to surmount a final formidable obstacle, the mountain range separating the two valleys. This was eventually achieved through the building of the Khoon Dtan tunnel under the mountain of the same name. This is the longest tunnel in Thailand, almost 1.5 kilometers in length, and took 11 years to build, starting in 1907. Construction was disrupted by the arrest of the German engineers in World War I .This part of the range of hills is now a National Park, unusual in having its own railway halt. Day-trippers can visit it by catching a stopping train, not an express. After the completion of the tunnel, the last great obstacle to King Chulalongkorn's dream was overcome, and Chiangmai was at last linked by a bond of steel to Bangkok far to the south.

The great era of railways was superceded by the present age of the car, with national budgets worldwide being diverted to building roads at the expense of the steel wheel. This has effectively ended the expansion of Thailand's railway system, and plans to build a line from Den Chai to Chiangrai, and from Phitsanulok to Mae Sord have been shelved for the time being. With the possibility of developing links with southern China through either Burma or Laos, the day of the railway in northern Thailand may dawn again.

Thailand owes much to King Mongkut, King Chulalongkorn and King Vajiravuth for their efforts to develop the nation's internal communications, at both sides of the turn of the century, and it is no surprise that the Kingdom's railway was initially called Rot Fai Luang (Royal State Railway)up until the Second World War. Although the Thai name has now been changed to Rot Fai Thai rolling stock still proudly carries the English script R. S. R., a reminder of its Royal past.