The Future Of Bangkok Rail Travel

As a rail fan and infrastructure enthusiast I’ve been keenly following the developments of Thailand’s future railway projects.

In addition to old lines being modernised, there are some proposed new lines that will open rail travel from Bangkok to new cities and countries.

To visualise these changes I have created a map of what Southeast Asia would look like if every proposed railway was built.

train travel from bangkok
[View the full sized image here]

The map is designed in a subway-style, which accentuates busy junctions with multiple lines. After completing the map it became obvious that Bangkok would be the railway hub of mainland Southeast Asia.

train travel from Bangkok

Future Bangkok

While Bangkok as a Tokyo-esque station looks like a commuter’s dream, how close is this to reality? I got the MRT to Bang Sue, which is where you can see the future of rail transport in Thailand.

At Bang Sue Junction there is an enormous construction site next to the current station. This is the new Bang Sue Central Station, which is due to open in 2019.

train travel from Bangkok

Bang Sue Central under construction

The station will have 24 platforms over two levels, making it the largest station in Southeast Asia, and one of the largest in the world.

train travel from bangkok

Bang Sue master plan from the Engineering Institute of Thailand

Bang Sue Central will be the new grand hub of Bangkok rail transport, replacing Hua Lamphong after over 100 years of noble service. I will miss Hua Lamphong for its location and heritage architecture.

In its current form Hua Lamphong can’t accommodate Bangkok’s future transport needs, thus it must move. Hua Lamphong will become a rail museum, so at least it’s not being torn down.

train travel from Bangkok

Trains at Hua Lamphong

Hua Lamphong’s current services will move to Bang Sue, which will also serve the SRT Red Lines and the airport link that will connect DMK to BKK. With these services in place the station will have activity from the start. This will not be a repeat of Makkasan Station on the Suvarnabhumi Airport Link, which has not lived up to its intended purpose.

Although Hua Lamphong is closing mainline services, it will gain a stop on the Dark Red line. This will arguably be a better service from Hua Lamphong as there will be more frequencies that go to Don Mueang. The Dark Red line will be extended to Maha Chai (which is where to get the train that goes through the Mae Klong market).

For an actual map of where the Red Lines will go visit this post.

Bang Sue Central will also be connected to Bang Sue MRT, though it looks like it will be a long walk between the two.

train travel from Bangkok

Map of Bang Sue MRT and SRT services by the MRT

You can view the full size image here.

With better connectivity of current lines, Bang Sue is already looking like a better station. And the potential future lines could make this one of the most international train stations in the world, in terms of countries that can be visited.

Here’s what a future Bangkok Central Station could look like.

Domestic Services

DMK-BKK-UTP – A tri-airport line

There are few cities in the world which have a train connecting two city airports (Shanghai is one). A line connecting three airports would have to be a first.

Such a link has been proposed for Bangkok, which would connect Don Mueang (DMK), Suvarnabhumi (BKK), and U-Tapao (UTP). This line would connect Pattaya and Rayong, though it isn’t mentioned if this is separate from a planned high speed line to Rayong. DMK-Bang Sue-BKK is already happening, so it would be a matter of extending the line from BKK to UTP to make this happen.

High Speed Trains

The term high speed train gets used by government officials and media reporters even if the proposed train isn’t “high speed”. There is no exact definition but usually anything over 200km/h is considered as high speed. Many of the high speed trains that have been reported for Thailand are more like European intercity trains that travel at 160km/h. This would fall under the category of fast train. That’s a great improvement on anything currently running, even if it’s not technically a high speed train.

With that qualification, these are the high speed trains that have been proposed:

– Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima (with future extension to Nong Khoi).
– Bangkok to Rayong (with possible future extension to Trat).
– Bangkok to Hua Hin (with future extension to Padang Besar for a possible Bangkok-KL HST).

Bangkok – Chiang Mai, Shinkansen-style train

One of the lines that would definitely be high speed is the proposed Bangkok-Chiang Mai HST. A bid was placed by Japan to build a Shinkansen-style train which would travel up to 350km/h. Such a service would require two separate tracks from the current line and associated buffer space.

I can’t see this happening anytime soon given the amount of land that would need to be acquired. If it does get built expect the journey to take less than 3 hours.

International Services

Thailand shares a border with four countries, yet there is currently only three international train services:

– The shuttle service from Nong Khai to Thanaleng (Laos).
– The overnight train to Butterworth (Malaysia).
– The Bangkok-Singapore Eastern & Oriental Express luxury train.

If all of the proposed railways get built, Bangkok could potentially have direct train services to eight countries. This is what the future holds if everything is built.

Bangkok – Vientiane – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang – Kunming

One of the biggest rail projects in Southeast Asia is the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link. This line will travel from China, through Laos, to Bangkok, then down the peninsula to KL and Singapore. While most of this will run on established lines, Laos is the big missing link here. China is pushing hard to get a connection from Southern China to Singapore, so they will be bankrolling most of this project.

The numbers for the project are impressive. The line from the China-Laos border to Vientiane is over 400 km long, and over half of that distance is going to be traversed by bridges and tunnels through mountainous terrain. After years of delay it looks like construction will commence in December this year.

If Thailand fulfil their end of the bargain and provide a high speed line from Bangkok to the Laos border, we would then be talking about taking city breaks by train to Luang Prabang for the weekend. Or you could go tubing in the Vang Vieng in the morning and be back in Khao San Rd for dinner. With a fast train to Kunming, Bangkokians could experience the wonders of Yunnan Province by train.

Bangkok – Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City

train travel from Bangkok

Phnom Penh Station

To the east is a line that seems so obvious yet has never been built. An intercity service could connect Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh City once the missing links between these three countries are built.

There is currently no line connecting Thailand to Cambodia, or Cambodia to Vietnam. A line from Aranyaprathet to the Cambodia border is under construction now, and is due for completion this year. It’s then a matter of waiting for Cambodia to complete the rehabilitation of the Phnom Penh to Battambang line, and the extension to the border at Poipet.

A regular fast train (like a European Intercity) would be able to travel from Bangkok to Phnom Penh in four hours, and a high-speed train in under three. And if we are talking about the future then a single visa for ASEAN would make this trip as easy as travelling from, say, Vienna to Budapest (a three hour journey with no passport control). From Phnom Penh a functional fast train service would get you to Saigon in another two hours.

Bangkok – Siem Reap

Once Bangkok to Phnom Penh is connected, another possibility is if Cambodia builds a railway from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and Sisophon (which is on the Bangkok – Phnom Penh line). With that new line it would be possible to run direct services from Bangkok to Siem Reap. You could then go to Angkor Wat overland, without ever having to set foot in Poipet again.

This route is a consequence of an expanding railway network across the region, rather than a line that was specifically planned. As more railway lines get built, more new city pairs appear possible.

Bangkok – Yangon – Mandalay

train travel from Bangkok

Yangon station

The other neighbour that Thailand has no railway connection to is Myanmar. The planned route for this missing link is extending the line from Kanchanaburi towards the port of Dawei, which would then connect to the rest of the Myanmar railway network. This would then open up the possibility of a Bangkok to Yangon service, which could also be extended to Mandalay.

Bangkok – Butterworth (Penang) – Kuala Lumpur – Singapore

To the south there is the daily service to Butterworth which would be improved with faster trains and double-tracking of the current single track. There is talk of extending the high speed train to the border, and Malaysia has expressed an interest in building a high speed line from KL to Bangkok. This would connect with the KL to Singapore high speed train which is due to commence construction in 2017.

Bangkok – Delhi / Bangkok – Hanoi

During my map research I found several reports that referred to a railway that would connect Delhi to Hanoi, via Bangkok. Such a route would be up there with great trains of the world. I don’t see this happening anytime soon, but I like the idea of turning up to Bang Sue Central and seeing Delhi on the departure board.

From Bangkok to Delhi the line would follow the new connection through Myanmar to Yangon. From there the line would continue north to a new line that is planned to connect Myanmar to India for the first time.

From Bangkok to Hanoi the route was not specifically mentioned, so it would either be a route via Cambodia, or via Laos where there is a new line under construction to Vietnam. On my map I have created two possible routes to Hanoi, which would be possible with two potential new lines that connect to Vietnam.

Future Bangkok

So this is a glimpse of what the future of rail from in Bangkok could look like. If this happens it will revolutionise regional travel in the same way that low cost airlines has changed the way people travel and take holidays in Southeast Asia.

Many of these lines have been perpetually proposed for years, without any progress. Now that some of these big projects are about to begin, the possibility of fast international train travel from Bangkok has moved a step closer.

To read references for all of these proposed lines visit the footnotes at www.nomadicnotes.com/travel-blog/southeast-asia-rail-map/.

All photos courtesy of James Clark except where indicated

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