The Burma Railway

State Railway Thailand ignores importance of Death Railway

* Published: 12/10/2009 at 12:00 AM Bangkok Post

After more than half a century, the Death Railway still lives up to its name. And that is a sad thing for the State Railway of Thailand.

The Bangkok-Namtok line is no doubt one of the most famous rail routes in the country, particularly among foreigners who want to get a glimpse of its history. The SRT runs daily local trains from Thon Buri station to the end of the line at Namtok, which is not far from the famous Sai Yok waterfall in Sai Yok district of Kanchanaburi. Special trains are arranged every weekend and public holidays from the main station, Hua Lamphong, for tourists.

What makes the line different from other routes in Thailand is it was built with the blood, sweat and tears of tens of thousands of people in the Second World War.

The line, which is off the main southern route at Nong Pladuk junction in Ban Pong district of Kanchanaburi, was part of a strategy by Japanese forces to link Thailand to Burma via Three Pagoda Pass in Sangkhla Buri district in the same province. The aim was to set up a route for supplies and troops to be shipped to Burma where the Japanese were battling the Allies.

About 180,000 Asian labourers and 6,000 prisoners of war began building the track in 1942. By the time it was finished a year later almost half of the Asian workers and 16,000 prisoners of war had succumbed to the harsh conditions and air raids by the Allies trying to destroy the project. One of the targets for Allied bombers is the bridge across the Kwai River, better known in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is a landmark of the route. After the end of the war, the SRT improved the line and decided to make it run only to Namtok. The sector beyond the station to the border with Burma was abandoned.

Unfortunately, the reputation of the Death Railway is still being damaged by minor incidents today. Over the past four months, there have been four incidents. On July 5, a locomotive hauling the Namtok-bound train had a brake problem and all the driver could do was watch as five cars with 50 passengers aboard rolled down the track for about 10 kilometres. Luckily, nobody was injured. The next day the exact same train returning to Bangkok derailed in Muang district because of degraded wooden sleepers. Again, the passengers escaped harm.

A month later on Aug 31, the train en route to Namtok ran off the tracks again in Kanchanaburi. To remind passengers of the danger of the line, yet another train derailed before it could arrive in Kanchanaburi from Thon Buri on Oct 1. The driver spotted splayed tracks in front of him and slowed down the train to prevent it overturning.

It is distressing that the SRT is letting this problem happen time and again on the line. Many wooden sleepers along the track are old and that is the root cause of the problem. The Namtok line is not a main route compared with the northern, northeastern and southern routes which are the lifeline of the SRT. Only a few trains run along it each day carrying just a few hundred passengers and tourists.

It is no secret that the SRT is struggling financially and has to budget carefully. The railway agency has to allocate its limited funds to fix the problems besetting the main lines. But that should not be an excuse to leave the old track to Namtok untouched.

All officials in the SRT should be blamed for the incidents that have occurred along this line.

One very fortunate outcome of the incidents is that there has been no loss of life. But with no concrete plans to make the line safer, nobody knows whether a more serious accident will happen one day.

Tourists should be able to relax and enjoy the ride and passengers should feel safe when they are on board the Death Railway train instead of wondering when the next incident will occur."

Been few years since I last took the trip.

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