The Vision of Royal Father & Son:
Kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn
Part 1: The Modernizing Monarch
A wonderful way to travel around Thailand is by train. The Kingdom's railway system is efficient and comfortable and offers a leisurely view of the tropical countryside. Train enthusiasts will get extra pleasure from understanding the significance of Thailand's train system from a historical perspective.
The railway is actually less than 100 years old, but has been a major factor in the progress of modern Thailand. Getting it built was no easy task not for the Siamese kings, the foreign taskmasters or the domestic labor force and plans were often put on hold. Today, the rail network extends north, northeast and south from the central station in Bangkok, but is still unfinished. The construction of Thailand's railway as it exists today was built between 1896 and 2001. Plans to expand further are on hold indefinitely. However, visitors will find that most tourist destinations are easily accessible via the train.
By the latter half of the 19th century, Siam's King Mongkut (Chakri Dynasty King Rama IV) had forged strong links with western colonial powers through treaties and diplomacy. When Britain's Queen Victoria tried to persuade him to let the British East India Company invest in a railroad for Siam, the monarch held off. He knew all too well what the British East India Company had accomplished in India, and how Siam's southeast Asian neighbors were fairing under English, Dutch and French colonial rule. If Siam were to build a railroad, King Mongkut wanted it built on his own terms.
When King Mongkut's son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) officially took the throne in 1873, pressures for a railroad were mounting. In the mid 19th century, the European powers were seeking to expand their empires into Southeast Asia. The French to the east controlled what we now call Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam while Britain already controlled Burma and Singapore and was keen to open trade throughout the Malay Peninsula. The British in particular were great builders of railways, which were seen as important to trade and control, for troops could be moved as easily as goods. The world's first railroad had actually been built in England in 1823, during the reign of Siam's King Rama II. It was 12 miles long between the British cities of Darlington and Stockton. By the time King Chulalongkorn reigned Siam, he was very eager to catch up with the industrialized powers of the world. Eventually, a railroad was built with a combination of resources, giving no single power, nor any type of collective power, to contributing countries.
In 1887, he approved a feasibility study and commissioned Sir Andrew Clark and Messrs. Punchard, Mac Taggart, Lowther & Co. to make the survey. By 1890, they had studied potential routes between Bangkok and Chiangmai, as well as between Saraburi and Nakorn Rajsima. Instead of caving in to one single foreign investor for construction, the King skillfully negotiated with several railroad technology experts across a variety of European countries and invited them to Siam to argue over the best way to build. In that year, King Chulalongkorn created the Department of Railway under the Ministry of Civil Engineering Works and named Mr. K. Bethge from Germany as the Director General. In the following year the department opened the construction bid for the Bangkok - Nakorn Rajsima route, on the tracks of 1.435 meter gauge. Mr. G. Murray Campbell from England won the bid. On 9th March 1891, King Chulalongkorn and the Crown Prince attended the ground breaking ceremony where the first Siamese rail line between Bangkok and Nakorn Rajsima, was officially under construction.
Unfortunately, Campbell was unable to complete the project according to the agreement, so The Department of Railway had to continue alone. Appreciative of certain western principles, King Chulalongkorn had liberated his subjects from serfdom when he took the throne, by establishing the seeds of a democratic government. In addition to this democratic rule, he had installed health and education programs, and encouraged capitalist practices. Under these new principals, Thai and Chinese people who worked in railway construction were paid as laborers.
When the line from Bangkok was completed as far as Ayutthaya, the King and Queen turned out for the line's opening ceremony on 26th March 1896. About 71 kilometers of track had been laid, and the Kingdom was ready to enjoy its first major rail line. The route between Bangkok and Nakorn Rajsima was later completed in 1900. In the same year, the new Department of Southern Railway was created to serve the construction of the Southern route on the tracks of 1.00 meter gauge. The King appointed Mr. H. Gittins from England to be the Director General.
By the time King Chulalongkorn died on 23rd October 1910, the railway stretched from Bangkok, north to Uttradit Province, northeast to Nakorn Rajsima Province, east to Chacherngzao Province, and south to Petchburi Province. The total of 932 kilometers distance of railway was completed during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, and another 690 kilometers remained under construction.
Siam's Very First Railroad The Small Train
The very first railway project actually came to Siam in 1886 when a Danish company laid 21 kilometers of track for a small commuter train, or tram, from Bangkok to Smootpragaan. The concession was that Siam would pay back the investment and own the railroad outright in 50 years. However, the project got stalled for almost 5 years due to a lack of funds. King Chulalongkorn finally decided to make a partial loan to the Danish company. This was the country's first loan to the private sector as well as the first foreign investment.
Construction finally began on 16 July 1891, and the King attended the ground breaking ceremony. Two years later, he went to the opening ceremony at Smootpragaan Station on 11 April 1893. This railway service was actually the first railroad system of Siam. In later years, the locomotive engine was changed from steam to electric. When the concession ended on 13 September 1936, the government took over until 1st January 1960. The small train system was eventually removed to expand the road for automobile use.