As Thailand eyes China-linked high-speed future, Bangkok’s historic Hua Lumphong railway station reaches end of the line

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For decades, Bangkok's stately Hua Lumphong terminus has welcomed workers into Thailand's capital — and served as a jumping-off point for many a backpacker's Thai adventure.

But the 105-year-old transit hub's links with much of the rest of the country will soon be severed, as services shift to a gleaming new US$4.8 billion (S$6.5 billion) railway station across town.

Bang Sue Grand Station, with 26 platforms and more than 270,000 square metres (2.95 million sq ft) of usable floor space, has been touted as Southeast Asia's largest railway station — built with a planned high-speed rail link to Laos and China in mind.

It was set to replace Hua Lumphong as the terminus for all long-distance rail services to Bangkok as early as this week, before an eleventh-hour reprieve from the authorities extended the venerable old station's commissioned life until after the new year — traditionally a busy travel period on Thailand's railways.

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The State Railway of Thailand (SRT), which operates Hua Lumphong, insists the main building — built in 1916 to designs by Italian architects commissioned by King Rama V, the well-travelled modernising monarch who brought European governance ideas, design and technology to Thailand — will remain in some form.

With its renaissance revival columns, grand atrium and stained glass windows, Hua Lumphong is much beloved in Bangkok for bringing a certain faded majesty to a city smothered by unimaginative high-rises, condominium blocks and shopping malls that pour towards the river from Silom and Sukhumvit Road.

Vast areas of railway sidings and adjoining land around the station have been earmarked for sale to developers by SRT, in the hopes of paring down the state-owned rail operator's debts that total some 190 billion baht (S$7.6 billion).

Critics fear redevelopment of the station site will inevitably put profit before community, in a city that has already seen shopping centres and tower blocks metastasise across its historic corners.

As public opposition to the landmark's phasing out grew, Thai Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob on Monday issued a press release effectively granting the station a stay of execution for 30 days, during which time he said long-distance services to it "will remain the same" pending additional consultations.

But the eventual move away to Bang Sue Grand Station is inevitable, leaving Hua Lumphong's future uncertain. Campaigners say nothing less than the soul of the city is at stake as yet another example of the capital's history and culture risks being erased.

"It would make sense if they were to stop train services or reduce them in order to improve public transport," Rodsana Tositrakul, who is running for Bangkok governor in elections set for next year, told a public consultation last week.

"But if they develop the surrounding area and turn it into a commercial opportunity I would describe that as selling off a national treasure."

"We're in crisis. Bangkok is no longer a decent place to live for anyone apart from the upper middle-class and up" said Chatri Prakitnonthakan, architecture professor.

Sited at the mouth of Chinatown — a 200-year-old working-class district of canals, street food stalls and historic shophouses, many now restored as chic bars — Hua Lumphong recalls an era when Bangkok's economy was clustered along the Chao Phraya river.

Long a hub for low-wage workers to access the capital cheaply from the suburbs, the station has also seen countless travellers pass through its doors over the years - to be shuttled in relative comfort across a country whose roads have, until the last few decades, been in questionable shape.

"It will be a great shame if they turn Hua Lumphong into another shopping complex," said Chanicha Jantarangsee, as she lifted her five-year-old son down from the engine room of a special steamer laid on earlier this month to mark the final weeks of full operations at the station.

"They should conserve it for our children so they know it was the beginning of Thai rail history."

Final destination

Unfortunately for Hua Lumphong, the end of the line seems near.

The Transport Ministry plans to slash the number of services from the station to just 22 from 118, as most of the capital's rail links shift to the newly built Bang Sue Grand Station, which has also served as a Covid-19 vaccination centre amid the pandemic.

Pichet Kunathammarak, deputy director of the ministry's rail transport department, told a rare public consultation last week: "Hua Lampong station is stunning and it's been around more than a century, there is no reason to demolish it."

"We will also not shut it down completely either but we will reduce the train services," he said at the meeting, forced by rising concern for the station's future from train unions and locals.

But conservationists say the powers-that-be behind Bangkok's gentrification rarely bend to public sentiment - especially when that public is poor.

In November, the much-loved art deco Scala Theatre — the capital's last stand-alone cinema and an architectural icon of its commercial heart — was pulled down to make way for a shopping centre, despite promises its iconic facade would be kept intact.

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Chinatown is also braced for major changes.

 A joint development worth hundreds of millions of dollars between IHG Hotels and Resorts and Asset World Corporation — owned by one of Thailand's richest people — is set to open in 2027 with a 322-room hotel, shops, convention centre and a new tourist attraction called "The Golden Pagoda" to be added to an area already studded with Chinese temples dating back to the nineteenth century.

"We're in crisis. Bangkok is no longer a decent place to live for anyone apart from the upper middle-class and up," Chatri Prakitnonthakan, an architecture professor at Silapakorn University, told This Week In Asia.

"The city doesn't provide working people with a decent place to stay, to eat and to live.

So the working class people have to get up at the crack of dawn to travel to the centre to work — doing jobs the upper-middle class won't do — and when they're done they're kicked out of the city. It has become an ugly structure."

Trainspotters, history buffs and Instagramers packed onto Hua Lumphong's platforms earlier this month to take photos of the final service to Ayutthaya, pulled by a steam-powered locomotive to mark the occasion.

As the excitement of the selfie sessions waned, sadness at the end of the era began to show.

"It just doesn't feel right if Hua Lampong station is closed down without a clear plan to preserve it," said steam train driver Jettana Kladpetch. "I'm a little choked up."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.