Thai Railway History
Posted: 2005, (last updated: 17th Apr, 2015, 09:07am)

Early Surveys

Towards the end of the 19th century, many surveys were commissioned by the Siamese authorities and certain western interest groups and governments, with the object of bringing a railway system to Thailand.

One of the best known of these was the survey conducted by Holt S. Hallett, a British colonial administrator, whose object was to promote a railway line to take British goods from the Gulf of Martaban (Burma), through what was then Siam, to Southern China. His superb book: A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States, first published in 1890 and still an excellent source of information on Northern Thailand, was the main result of this journey: the railway, alas, was never constructed.

Then in 1887-1888, Messrs Punchard and Co., British Railway Contractors, were commissioned by the Siamese government, to survey a line from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and then to Korat, the first section of the current North Eastern Line. James McCarthy, a British engineer employed by the government of Siam, describes some of this work in his book Surveying and Exploring in Siam, first published in 1900.

A second line was to go from Ayutthaya to Lopburi, then on to Lampang, Lamphun and Chiang Mai. From Chiang Mai it was projected to go north to Chiang Rai and eventually to Chiang Saen on the Mae Khong (Mekong river).

Much of this survey bore fruit, some years later, in the construction of parts of the northern and north-eastern lines though the section of the northern line beyond Chiang Mai has not been constructed, even to this day: the connection north to China via Chiang Saen and the Mae Khong, was very attractive from a trade point of view, but the engineering difficulties presented by the mountains of northern Thailand proved too daunting.

A recent (March 2010) proposal from the Chinese Government, however, for a high speed link between Asia and Europe might at last result the long overdue rail link from Thailand to Southern China.

First Routes

The foundations for the current railway network were laid during the 1890's and the early years of the 20th Century. J. Antonio, a Portuguese photographer working for the Royal Railway Department in Bangkok during this period gave some details of these early years in his book: The 1904 Traveller's Guide to Bangkok and Siam.

According to Antonio, the first railway in Thailand was the Paknam railway; the accompanying map shows this line following the course of the present-day Rama IV road, from near Bangkok Central Station eastwards towards the mouth of the river. This line, opened in 1893, is no longer in existence, though Thai friends remember using it in the 1950's.

Modern maps of greater Bangkok still show a Thanon Tang Rotfai Kao sai Paknam ("Road on the route of the former Paknam railway") from Khlong Toey eastwards towards the river mouth.

Rail Services to Ayutthaya opened on March 9th 1894, extending to Korat in 1900 as the first section of what is now the Northeastern line. A branch line to Lopburi became the first section of the Northern line to Chiang Mai.

In 1903 a line opened to Petchaburi on the west coast of the gulf of Siam. This eventually became the Southern line to Butterworth, Malaysia. At that time the line commenced at the elegant old Thonburi Railway station, now retired. Another line was under planning to Sri Ratcha on the east coast of the gulf of Siam (present day Eastern Line).

Antonio also mentions the construction of a private line from Thonburi to Tha Chin on the coast. This must be the Mae Khlong-Mahachai railway, now part of the State Railway of Thailand, though it does not connect with the main network.

This line is mainly used to ferry sea produce and passengers from the coast to Bangkok, but also provides the opportunity for a cheap and pleasant 1 day excursion from Bangkok to the old fishing ports of Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram: see the page Mahachai Railway.

Originally the Northern and Eastern Railways were controlled by the Northern Railway Authority, whereas services West of the Chao Phraya River (i.e. originating in Thonburi, West Bangkok), operated under a different authority - the Southern Railway Authority, and while the Northern Railway used Standard Gauge (1.435m - 4ft 81/2 inches), the Southern Railway adopted Narrow Gauge (1 meter), allowing it to link up eventually with the Narrow Gauge lines of British Malaya.

In 1917, The two authorities were merged as the Royal State Railways of Siam, and in 1920 Narrow Gauge, for logistical reasons, was adopted as the national standard. Conversion work started by adding a third line to the Northern network so that it could run Standard and Narrow Gauge trains. Conversion of the network was completed in 1930.

Before the two authorities were maerged the Northern and North-Eastern networks had been designed and run by German engineers, the Southern Line by British engineers. Once the two authorities were merged it was reasonably easy to run the two networks as separate enterprises, as at no point did the networks connect. This all changed with the decision to Bridge the Chao Phraya river at Bang Sue so that the Southern line could join up with the other networks. This meant that international traffic would be able to begin and terminate at Hua Lamphong Station in Central Bangkok, rather than on the other side of the River at Thonburi Station, which involved passengers in a rver crossing prior to departure. The Rama VI rail bridge, completed in 1927, was one of the first bridges accross the Chao Phraya river.

Rama VI Bridge, Bangkok

Thailand Railway Museum

A small private museum, mixing railway relics with early motorcycle, military and other memorabilia.

Early Steam Engines and carriages take up much of the space (as one might expect!), but one of the more interesting exhibits is a model train, a replica of the one presented to King Rama IV by Queen Victoria. The original occupies a prime position in the National Museum, Bangkok.

Model Train presented by Queen Victoria

The museum is located on Kamphaeng Phet 3 road, nearest sky train station Chatuchak Park. Telephone 02-373-9976.

The museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays; entrance is free, though donations are always welcome.

Thailand Steam Locomotives and other Rail Memorabilia

Thailand's railways are littered with relics of the steam age - old locomotives and rolling stock, signalling equipment, message boards, maps etc. Most major, and some smaller, stations have steam locomotives, some in pretty good condition.

What follows is just a selection.

Steam Locomotive 714
Hitachi, Japan
Series 713-714, type 2-6-0
Track Gauge 1 Meter.
Location: Bangkok Railway Station (Hua Lamphong)

Steam Locomotive 457
Henchel and Son, Germany
Series 451-458, type 2-8-2+2-8-2
In Service 1929-1936
Track Gauge 1 Meter.
Location: Kanchanaburi Station

Steam Locomotive 340
In Service 1927-1953
Track Gauge 1 Meter.
Location: Chiang Mai Station

Steam Locomotive 161
Type 4-6-0, 10 wheel
Manufactured: England
In service:1913-1967,
Track Gauge 1 Meter.
Location: Opposite Wat Mahathat, Lopburi

Steam Locomotive 804
Track Gauge 1 Meter.
Location: Kwai Bridge Station

Steam Locomotive 719
Track Gauge 1 Meter.
Location: Kwai Bridge Station

Steam Locomotive 33
Kiaosan Kokiao Corporation, Japan
Type 0-4-0 (4 Wheels)
Track Gauge 600mm.
In service from 1950 to 1965.
Assignment: Nakhon Ratchasima
Location: Thailand Railway Museum, Bangkok

Steam Locomotive 10089
Kiaosan Kokiao Corporation, Japan, 1960's
Type 0-4-0 (4 Wheels)
Track Gauge 600mm.
Designed for use on Sugar Cane plantations, but never saw service.
Location: Thailand Railway Museum, Bangkok

Hand-pumped Trolley
Location: Chiang Mai Station
Photo: Eric Hayman

Replica Open Railway Carriage
Track Gauge 600 mm
Location: Makkasan Station,

Electric Tram Car 1892
In service Bangkok
Said to be the first tramcar in Siam.
Location: Thailand Railway Museum, Bangkok

Old Station Bell
Location: Makkasan Station,
Photo: Eric Hayman, 2009

Rail Trolley
Makkasan Station,
Photo: Eric Hayman, 2009.