Thai officials on Monday again vowed to upgrade safety of the country’s hundreds of unofficial railroad grade crossings, but no amount of new equipment or increased education is likely to prevent accidents like this week’s train-bus collision that killed 19 people in Chachoengsao.
Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob’s order to the State Railway of Thailand and Rail Transport Department to install signal systems and barriers at all at-grade crossings throughout the country was not the first time such a directive has been issued. And it’s unlikely to be any more successful.
The same order was issued in 2014 after a four train-vehicle crashes in a span of days killed six people and injured 21. But with more than 600 unofficial, unmarked and even illegal crossings dotting the country’s rail network, the job of upgrading or closing them all quickly proved impossible.
Once the bodies were buried, the issue quietly was swept under the rug. Every year since, about 150 people a year continued to be killed at Thai level crossings, Transport Ministry figures show.
The fact is that most of the crossings where people are hurt or killed don’t even appear on SRT maps. Most are located upcountry, although even in Bangkok entire squatter communities have cropped up around the informal crossings hacked out of heavy brush and accessed by dirt or gravel roads.
Most begin service wide enough only for motorbikes but, over time, get widened enough to allow pickup trucks through. And that’s when the accidents begin.
Sunday’s deadly crash in Bang Toey Subdistrict in the Eastern Province that killed 13 Thai and six Burmese employees of a Samut Prakan plastic-bottle factory en route to a merit-making ceremony at Chachoengsao’s Wat Bang Pla Nak occurred at what locals called an “abandoned” rail station at Khlong Kwaeng Klan.
While all agreed that the level crossing had no barrier gates, there was a clearly lit signal light, police said Monday. The driver either didn’t see it due to overgrown foliage around the crossing or simply jumped the tracks after the first of two trains went by, not waiting for the singal to turn green.
In either case, Muang District Chief Prathuang Yookasem said a full safety system would be installed at Khlong Kwaeng Klan as soon as possible while authorities also look for other unmarked crossings in the Chachoengsao district.
Transport Minister Saksayam said he wanted to see that all unofficial crossings also get signals and gates, or be closed down. Both money and politics will prevent him from getting what he wants.
In order to make his wish come true, Saksayam would need to find the cash to pay for all the upgrades. After the string of crashes in 2014, the SRT estimated it would take 3 billion baht to upgrade the 600 illegal level crossings in Thailand. By comparison, the SRT’s budget for crossing maintenance and upgrades that year was 400 million baht.
In 2015, a massive 27 billion baht was requested to upgrade 2,500 legal crossings. Only 30 million was allocated.
Saksayam on Monday admitted that the SRT’s 2021 budget for procurement of barriers was cut further from last year’s aleady-low level. Now, with bodies still waiting to be identified, the Democrat Party MP who pushed the budget cut, Akkhraradet Wongphithakrote, said he would reintroduce the funding at a committee meeting Oct 29.
The alternative to signals and gates, of course, is to simply close down the illegal danger zones. That’s where politics come in.
SRT officials previously have told the media that they can’t “fight the power” when it comes to crossings in far-flung rural towns, which often are run as personal fiefdoms by “influential figures”.
Villagers and communities fight the closure of rail crossings and get local officials to back them up. Faced with too much blowback and SRT fold like a house of cards. Even in Bangkok’s Lat Krabang area, where shantytowns had gone up along the rails, an illegal crossing was allowed to stay open after the poor accused the government of persecuting them.
Education, then, would seem to be the key. Programs to educate motorists better on how to cross train tracks safely are run around the country every year. But its effectiveness is dubious, not only in Thailand, but worldwide.
The United States, with its expansive rail network, spends tens of millions of dollars each year to educate drivers about grade crossings. Yet, since 2013, an average of 11,500 people a year continued to be killed by trains. After a substantial drop from 2012 to 2013, the death toll has remained flat since.
Of course, driver education in Thailand is much worse, as seen in the headlines every day of the year.
Case in point: The bus involved in this weekend’s deadly crash was rated to carry 47 people, even though 65 were aboard. And the driver, who was killed in the crash, never heard the train blowing its horn from 400 meters away because he was blaring music so loudly.