Steam enthusiasts from all around the country gathered today at Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok for the annual steam train trip to Ayutthaya. Although the train wasn’t due to depart until 8 a.m., people came an hour early to take pictures. Everyone was mesmerized by the working engine – from youngsters to railway personal who all took turns to pose in front of the train. I was there too as I have a life long interest in steam trains. Today, 26th March, marks the anniversary of the opening of the first public rail service in Thailand between Bangkok and Ayutthaya. King Chulalongkorn had made a proclamation in 1890 to change the face of transport in Thailand by building a national railway grid. The first private railway was opened by the king in 1893 which ran from Bangkok to the port in Samut Prakan. This was followed by the first public lines to Ayutthaya in 1896 and Nakhon Ratchasima a short while later. By the time of the King’s death in 1910, 774 kms of lines had been opened. By the end of World War this had increased to 2,481 kms. Today there are now 4,346 kms of railway tracks in Thailand.
Tickets for this special train ride went on sale several months ago. Judging by the crowds, I would say that it sold out. As well as Thai nationals, there were also a number of foreigners taking this rare opportunity. Shortly after the national anthem at 8 a.m., when all the passengers in the carriages stood up, the train blew its distinctive whistle and we chugged out of the station. The excitement from everyone was very contagious. Not only the people on the train, but everyone that we passed. From early morning commuters at railway crossings to passengers in passing trains, everyone turned to gape at the sight and to take pictures with their mobile phones. I even saw a driver of a diesel locomotive taking a picture. It was almost like a scene from the Railway Children as people waved at us, as we slowly passed them. I also waved back as I dangled dangerously out of the open door. I was trying to take a picture of the engine as it went around a corner. Although it was exciting to ride a steam train, it was just as exciting to stand alongside the track and watch a steam train pass you. Like journeying back in time.
I quickly decided that I would stay on the train for only 30 minutes and then get off when it stopped at Bang Su Station on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. I wanted to be up close to the engine as it left the station. Like at Hua Lamphong, there were also many people here excited to see the steam train arrive. I got down from the train and made my way to the front. The sun was higher in the sky by this time and the lighting was better for taking photographs. Although I was a little disappointed to not go all the way to Ayutthaya, I felt it was just as rewarding to be there at the station as it approached me and then passed. After about four minutes, the guard blew his whistle and the train slowly chugged out of the station. I stood there watching as it disappeared into the distance. The journey to Ayutthaya would take a lot longer than a normal train. For the record, loco engine 824 took the lead in the journey to Ayutthaya. Then loco engine 953 was used for the return journey to Bangkok.
It is a rare treat in Thailand today to be able to go on a ride on a steam train. The State Railway of Thailand organize three such trips every year from Hua Lamphong to Ayutthaya so it doesn’t matter if you missed todays event. These go on 26th March (anniversary of the opening of the first public railway), 23rd October (anniversary of death of King Chulalongkorn) and December 5th (birthday of the present king). I will certainly go again in October. I think this time I might catch the train at Bang Su. They have a MRT underground station here so it is easy to reach. Then I can watch the train as it arrives. Then I will get on and then finish my journey to Ayutthaya. If you are unable to buy tickets in advance, you can always try on the day by just turning up. Or do like I did and just stand up for the short journey to Bang Su and then return by MRT. It is difficult to say how much longer these trips will continue. So take the opportunity if you can.