The management of Bangkok’s BTS Skytrain service has drawn heavy criticism for its response to huge delays and disruption that paralysed the network and inconvenienced thousands of commuters on Wednesday.
Lengthy delays to the service began early on Wednesday and continued throughout the day, caused by faulty equipment used to allow trains to switch tracks between Siam station – which acts as the interchange between the Skytrain’s two lines – and Chit Lom station, the next along from Siam towards the Bearing terminus on the Sukhumvit line. Initially, vague service update announcements indicated that the issue was simply an electrical fault.
Large crowds gathered at stations across the city, both on overcrowded platforms and outside the stations themselves, where passengers were forced to join lengthy queues to pass ticket barriers. Disruption continued all day, since the service provider admitted it would only be able to repair the fault after the system closed around midnight, when the electricity supply would be disconnected to allow work to take place. Some passengers reported cross-city journey times as long as four hours.
The track-switching problem forced the BTS to resort to splitting its Sukhumvit line in two, with one segment operating between Mo Chit and Siam and the other between Siam and Bearing, requiring many passengers to switch between the two at the packed interchange station in order to complete their journeys. Unconfirmed reports also suggested that for a time the network’s operations were reduced to two lines, one running between Mo Chit and Bang Wa and another between Siam and Bearing. The usual Silom line route runs between Bang Wa and National Stadium, one station west of Siam.
While the most noticeable disruption was caused to the Skytrain’s Sukhumvit line, knock-on congestion also affected its Silom line, as well as the single-line MRT subway system and road transport. App-powered transport service Uber’s demand-led fares increased as the number of passengers soared, and there were complaints of motorbike taxi drivers charging passengers more than the regulated fares. Competitor Grab, which uses public taxis and motorbike taxis rather than private vehicles, offered discounts to encourage commuters to use the service as an alternative to the BTS.
Criticism levelled at BTS management has largely focussed on the company’s response to the incident, including a lack of information provided to passengers – particularly English-language information for the benefit of non-Thai-speaking expats and tourists. Netizens have complained about a lack of information being made available prior to passengers passing ticket barriers, saying this meant many unwittingly purchased tickets but were then not able to travel.
A lack of English-language announcements in stations has caused particular ire; many passengers said the only announcements made in English were pre-recorded standard ones routinely used in normal circumstances, and that real-time updates about the Wednesday’s actual situation were given only in Thai.
Social media updates provided by the company were also few and far between, and almost exclusively in Thai. The Bangkok Post reported that the company’s Twitter feed gave a total of only three updates by 10am. There were just two English-language updates all day, one advising that passengers needed to change trains at Siam and claiming that the Silom line service was running normally, and the other apologising for the inconvenience. Netizens remarked that the BTS routinely performs poorly in its approach to social media management, particularly in English, but stressed that the service caters to tourists and expats as well as Thais, and ought to tailor its communications accordingly
‘I am a fluent Thai speaker but am disgusted that BTS did no English Communication [sic] today. Tourists and expats totally let down”, tweeted one expat, adding: “You [BTS] serve Thais, tourists, and expats. Other train systems worldwide make English annoucements/signs [sic]. Why do you fail so bad?’
Another expat tweeted, ‘I think the BTS has long needed a full-time person to take charge of social media, publications and website, etc.’, and travel blogger Richard Barrow retweeted Thai-language tweets on the matter, adding: ‘Thai people joining the chorus of calls for [the BTS] to make announcements in English during times of delays’.
The technical fault was resolved overnight, and the network returned to normal operations at its regular opening time on Thursday morning. The BTS management has since announced compensation of two free journeys for holders of stored-value Rabbit and 30-Day SmartPass cards who had trips remaining on their cards at the time of the disruption. The news was also announced in Thai and English on the company’s Twitter feed. Eligible cardholders can claim their free journeys at any BTS ticket office between 01 March and 30 April.
No mention has been made of compensation for passengers who purchased single-journey tickets or one-day passes. The company claims it is not required under the terms of its operating contract to compensate travellers for service disruption or delays; the Bangkok Post reports that the terms of the concession awarded by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration require only that BTS management report on a six-monthly basis to a City Hall contract-supervising committee.
BTS Executive Director Anat Arbhabhirama suggested that the contract was self-regulating, since he believed the potential for service disruption to cause revenue losses was sufficient incentive for the company to avoid such incidents without the need for additional fines or obligations to pay compensation to passengers.