The Bangkok underground railway system, the Metropolitan Rapid Transport or Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), has not only proven to be a wonderful adjunct to the Skytrain (BTS), it has also been a model for creating a metropolitan railway on what is essentially a flood plain.
As a way of making much of central Bangkok accessible by way of comfortable and convenient public transport, especially for tourists, the BTS and MRT are well-integrated. It is possible to travel quite substantial distances across the capital either by way of the overground/overhead BTS and, by alighting at the various interchange stations, move seamlessly into the underground MRT system.
For many years it was considered an engineering impossibility to construct an underground railway system in Bangkok, simply because the Thai capital is below sea level and the heavy monsoon rains which have often led to flooding would likely inundate any underground facilities.
Nonetheless, a plan was formulated and in November 1996 work began on creating this engineering marvel. The end result was 21 kilometres of bored tunnels up to a depth of 30 metres from the city streets. The MRT set up 18 stations along its length, which stretched from the main railway station at Hualumphong to Bang Sue Junction. The total cost was around 88 billion baht (or US$2.75 billion).
The first trial operations began on 13 April 2004 and more than 10,000 commuters were involved. As each ‘glitch’ was identified and corrected the time edged closer to the official opening.
On 3 July 2004 the underground system was officially launched after a ceremony presided over by King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit unveiled the MRT to the public. The only line operational was the Blue Line, officially called the Chaloem Ratchamongkhon Line. In 2011 extensions to the Blue Line were started.
The original Blue Line runs east from Bang Sue along Kamphaeng Phet, Phahon Yothin and Lat Prao Roads, then turns south along Ratchadaphisek Road, west along Rama IV Road and then into Hualumphong.
On 17 January 2005 the first accident took place when nearly 150 passengers were injured when an empty three-car subway train crashed into another train filled with passengers.
Initial expectations were that up to 400,000 people would use the MRT on a daily basis, but in fact the numbers are down at around 240,000 a day. The BTS suffered from similarly smaller numbers in the first years of its operations, but nowadays it is busy from morning to night every day of the week. The MRT has yet to reach this position but has gained a fairly loyal following, and with a series of extensions under construction, it is expected to gain stronger patronage in future years.