Early morning at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station is a busy time as in a single day trains discharge sleepy passengers into the cacophony of town by way of the station’s huge arched fundamental corridor. An enormous portrait of King Chulalongkorn, the architect of recent Thailand, gazes down on vacationers crammed with the thrill of journeys but to come back.
4 instances a 12 months, I go to this station to observe the departure of a prepare hauled by two fantastically preserved Japanese-built steam locomotives. At eight a.m. the whistle blows and steam billows from the engines because the prepare begins its run. A brilliant orange phuang malai (flower garland) hangs on the entrance, and 10 spotless burgundy-and-cream coaches are lined up behind.
With the arc of the station roof because the backdrop, it’s a formidable sight, and I am not the one one who turns as much as get pleasure from it. Earlier than its departure, kids and adults queue to have their images taken with the prepare. Past the platforms, a phalanx of photographers, each native and worldwide, jostle to doc its departure.
Afterwards I wander again up the platform and into the station’s meals courtroom for breakfast. Railways are in my DNA. My father was an avid prepare spotter, and each my grandfather and my elder brother constructed miniature steam locomotives to haul kids round public parks. In my youth I volunteered to revive previous stations for one in every of England’s many preserved railways.
Hua Lamphong is one in every of Southeast Asia’s final remaining grand previous railway stations, and it breaks my coronary heart to know it’s scheduled to shut in 2021. Providers shall be moved to a brand new transport hub at Bang Sue, which may even be the Bangkok terminal for a brand new high-speed rail community. Hua Lamphong shall be changed into a museum.
Kuala Lumpur’s pretty previous station can also be speculated to have turn into a museum, however on my final go to I might see no proof of that. To be truthful, the station remains to be in every day use — its neo-Moorish domes nonetheless preside over a handful of commuter trains every day — however the elegant previous colonial-style lodge with its teak staircase and atmospheric bar is boarded up. Its as soon as pristine white facade is tattered and worn, and I couldn’t make even a cursory exploration of the platforms with out shopping for a ticket to go someplace.
With high-speed rail tasks underway or being deliberate all through Southeast Asia, it’s inevitable that these tasks shall be linked into a brand new region-wide community. Malaysia is already constructing an East Coast Rail Hyperlink to attach its japanese seashores with a deliberate Kuala Lumpur-to-Singapore high-speed rail line, scheduled to open in 2031.
A line from Vientiane in Laos to Kunming in China is because of open in 2022, and can finally hyperlink with a Thai community anticipated to open in phases between 2025 and 2036. This may cut back switch instances and carbon footprints for shipments of products and vacationers between China and Southeast Asia.
These trains will run on standard-gauge observe — wider than the 1,000 mm observe for current railways in a lot of Southeast Asia — which suggests the brand new trains won’t be able to run on older traces. A number of the current networks will proceed, however others are prone to shut or turn into underutilized. So this can be a good time to speak about earmarking a few of the previous networks for preservation.
Museums protect heritage buildings, however the reveals inside them are sometimes chilly and lifeless. With the precise advertising and marketing, these older railways can turn into glorious vacationer sights. In Britain, residence of railways and the epicenter of preservation, The Railway Touring Firm runs 60 to 65 day journeys a 12 months carrying about 19,000 passengers in rolling inventory pulled by steam-powered locomotives.
These trains function on the nationwide community, alongside trendy rolling inventory. There are additionally scores of preserved railways. England alone has 119 — in an space not a lot larger than Indonesia’s Java island — together with fundamental line, native and industrial railways.
The thought is just not with out precedent in Asia. The North Borneo Railway, operated in Malaysia’s Sabah State by the Sutera Harbour Resort, runs two trains per week between Tanjung Aru and Papar. And the steam specials that depart from Hua Lamphong are all the time nicely subscribed.
With ever rising numbers of vacationers flooding into Southeast Asia, inflicting concern about “over-tourism” and closures of standard sights equivalent to Thailand’s Maya Bay and the Philippines’ Boracay Island, it might make sense to supply alternate options. It would even be doable to make use of the area’s railways to hold vacationers to areas that may in any other case be ignored. In lots of instances, the infrastructure already exists. All that’s wanted is the need and a few savvy advertising and marketing.
David Sutton is a Bangkok-based author and creator of “The Mango Street” journey weblog.