The Royal State Railway of Thailand
THE BUILDING OF THAILAND'S state railway system is generally accredited to the late King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) but in actual fact, it was his father, King Mongkut (Rama IV) who was the instigator of the project. King Mongkut reigned from 1851 to 1868 and, although the west will always remember him from the musical play "The King and I" he was actually a monarch of vision, setting the scene for the modernization of Thailand, which his son so ably went on to achieve.
One of those projects was the construction of the State Railway. At that time (1855), European colonization was under full steam. The British had already colonized Burma and Singapore and were looking for a foothold in Thailand so that they could shorten the trade routes between other parts of the Malaysian peninsular.
With this aim in mind, Queen Victoria sent a special diplomatic mission to Bangkok. Headed by the Hon. Harry Smith-Parks, the ambassador to the court of Siam, the British delegation were granted an audience with King Mongkut, on February 10th 1855, and among many gifts bestowed upon his majesty at the meeting, was a fully operational model of a steam driven locomotive and passenger cars. Through this gift, Queen Victoria conveyed her wish to construct a railroad in Thailand, stretching from the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Siam. King Mongkut was an astute man however and fully realized the implications of such a project. Determined to resist colonization at all costs, he rejected the offer, informing Queen Victoria that Siam was not yet ready for such a transport system due to a time of great budgetary restraints within the Kingdom and a small population.
The seeds however had been laid and it was left to King Rama V, when he inherited the throne in 1868, to revive the project. The British were still wanting a foothold in Thailand and, despite the failure of the 1855 mission, Queen Victoria did not give up her pursuit of the project. King Chulalongkorn however, had been well briefed by his father and cleverly thwarted a number of attempts, including one notable event in which Queen Victoria offered the use of the British East India company to construct a railroad in Thailand. Mimicking his father, King Chulalongkorn replied "Siam is not yet ready for a railroad due to insufficient economy and a relatively low population." To that, he added a note that the Ox cart was the most common form of transport in the Kingdom and that it was quite sufficient for the time. This was however, just a stalling game.
King Chulalongkorn wanted a railroad and his dream was to link Bangkok with Thailand's second city, Chiangmai, in the north but was not prepared to lose his sovereignty over the project. Having stalled the British yet again, he consulted engineers across Europe and had a number of plans drawn up, but it was not until 1888 that he formerly commissioned a British engineer to conduct a survey of a railroad linking the two cities. As a result of that survey, a Royal Decree issued in 1891 gave the green light for the project to start. Five years later on March 26, 1896, the first link between Bangkok and Ayuthaya was opened and by the turn of the century, the line had reached Nakorn Ratchasima.
In 1896, on completion of the first stage of the project, King Rama V transferred the newly created Royal Railway department into German hands, a precaution intended to counterbalance an over strong British influence. Ten locomotives had been purchased from England for use on the Bangkok-Nakorn Ratchasima line but from that point on, until the completion of the line to Chiangmai, all other locomotives were bought from Germany and it was German engineers who completed the railroad. From Nakorn Ratchasima, the line went to Lopburi which was reached in 1901, Phitsanaloke in 1907 and Lampang in 1915 but King Rama V never saw the completion of his dream, dying in 1910 when the railroad reached Baan Dara junction in Uttaradit.
The final leg of the project was to connect Lampang to Chiangmai, however there were many problems to be overcome on this, the most difficult leg. The Khoon Dtarn mountain range, separating Lampang from Chiangmai, presented a formidable obstacle, which was finally overcome by the construction of a tunnel. The Khoon Dtarn tunnel, at 1.5 kilometers in length, is the longest tunnel in Thailand and construction started in 1907. Unfortunately the First World War interrupted the project when the German engineers were arrested and ultimately it took 11 years to complete, with the railroad finally reaching Chiangmai in 1919. The war effectively brought an end to German management of the railroad system and once again British locomotives were purchased, however, the dual gauge track and rolling stock was difficult to maintain and with an eye to furthering the network into Malaysia and Cambodia, Thailand decided to convert the entire network to meter gauge, the standard in south east Asia.
The great era of the railroad was superseded by the present age of the car and national budgets were diverted to the construction of roads. This effectively ended the expansion of the railway and plans to build a rail link from Denchai to Chiangrai and from Phitsanaloke to Mae Sod have been shelved for some time. The quadrilateral agreement between Thailand, Laos, Burma and China however, has opened the possibility of a second dawning of the railroad era trade links to these countries via a rail network being a distinct possibility.
Thailand owes much to King Mongkut, King Chulalongkorn and his successor, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) for their vision and efforts in establishing the countries rail system. It is no surprise therefore, that the network was called "Rot Fai Luang" (Royal State Railway). After the second world war the name was changed to "Rot Fai Thai" (Thai State Railway) but in memory of its distinguished founders, the letters RSR in English, are still proudly displayed on all rolling bogeys.
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