STATE RAILWAY OF THAILAND
For two years beginning in late July of 1973 I lived and worked in Haadyai, Thailand. I was already a mild railfan before moving arriving and soon became convicted in the faith. With legitimate diversions in town few in number, I devoted a fair amount of my leisure time to train watching and going to the beach in nearby Songkhla. My favorite train ride was the Songkhla rhot ram (all stops local) train service. The local expatriates nicknamed it the Songkhla Bullet.
The Songkhla Bullet was my kind of train. Steady, not flashy, workaday jeans, bib overalls, T-shirt, shorts and sandals, a glimpse into the past, and a ride to the beach and American library at Songkhla. A world to itself. The Songkhla Bullet!
As you have probably guessed from the buildup, the Songkhla Bullet was anything but a bullet. It took about 45 minutes, and sometimes much longer, to go the 29 kilometers (18 miles) from Haadyai to Songkhla through the fields and rubber groves of Songkhla Province in southern Thailand. Not a speedster by any measure except in comparison to a bullock cart.
The Bullet's route wound through the rice paddies, fruit groves, rubber plantations and tiny farming hamlets that dot the densely populated coastal plain of South Thailand. Schedule keeping was never a strong point. Nobody that was in a hurry or had to be somewhere at an exact time rode the Bullet. During the course of the day the same trainset made the round trip several times between roughly 5:00 AM and dusk. The State Railway of Thailand made good use of this worn but serviceable equipment.
The Bullet served the morning market hawkers, fruit and vegetable sellers, egg merchants, fish mongers, and chicken farmers. It also carried the odd hog or two. The passengers wore faded blue homespun, puffed hand-rolled cigarettes made from corn shucks, and chewed betel nut prepared on the spot. No need for pretensions here. For me it was a way to escape into solitude for a few hours. A world without telephones or students.
Big bundles of produce, hogs, chicken cages, and baskets of fresh fish went up front in the baggage car cum-zoo and rolling produce market while smaller, less smelly, loads went in back with the passengers. Sometimes a freight car or two was wedged into the consist making this jack-of-all-trades service truly mixed. During durian (a extermely strongly scented fruit with custard like meat) season the unmistakable garlic-like aroma permeated every nook and cranny of the train with its luscious, pungent odor.
The Bullet was a cozy, mutually dependent travel arrangement for all involved. Most riders used the service every market day. There were also the occasional day trippers to the Samilia Beach at Songkhla, students on holiday, and foreign tourists that didn't trust the faster and more exciting bus.
Samilla Beach and the Mermaid - Songkhla, Thailand
Songkhla (Sowng-cla), shown as Singora on some older maps, population then of roughly 20,000 persons, is the seat of the province of the same name, a naval anchorage, and the governmental center of southern Thailand. It is also an ancient city with a documented history going back over one thousand years. European, Chinese, Malay, and Arab sailor-merchants once came to trade. The town's more recent shot for glory was serving as one of the major landing sites for Japanese Imperial Forces invading Malaya in 1941. Thai forces, realists to a fault, resisted only briefly. The town and its surrounding area has numerous tourist sites to choose from. From 1975 it has also been a destination and transient camp for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees fleeing their homelands by boat across the Gulf of Thailand. Natural gas and oil off shore fuel its economy and bring expatriate workers these days.
HAADYAI STATION WITH TRAIN DEPARTING - 1975
Haadyai, with a population in 1975 of approximately 70,000, my home, is the economic hub of Thailand's Phak Thai, or southern region, with a notable university, a large Army base, many commercial activities, several good hotels, an international airport, and the south's major transportation junction. The brawny bustling, growing city is also known throughout Southeast Asia for its tourist industry. Thailand's State Railway has modern shops and, during my sojourn, homeported its last significant steam locomotive fleet there. I was born too late for North American steam so spent many free hours during my first few weeks in town on the pedestrian overcrossing between the station and the locomotive shed.
Every year thousands of travelers going between Singapore and Bangkok passed through Haadyai. Numerous express and local trains radiated north to Bangkok, southeast along the mainline to the border town of Sungei Golok, the Bullet east to Songkhla on the Gulf of Thailand, and southwest to the border at Pedang Besar with three days a week through car service to Butterworth (Penang), Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Truly a cosmopolitan crossroads plunked down in the supposed backwaters of rural Asia. I once counted 58 daily trains on the departure board. I lived in Haadyai where I taught school. My apartment windows overlooked a park to the railway station and yard. The shop whistle blew at 5:45 AM as a warning for its staff and then again at 6:00 every day except Sunday. No need for an alarm clock. I caught Friday's 8:15 train to Songkhla several times a month for R & R usually returning in time for a late noon dinner. Three Baht (roughly 15 cents in 1974) bought a round trip ticket - the bus was at least double that - and a comfortable ride on hard wooden or thinly padded metal seats. I also bought peace of mind, going by bus made my hair fall out and knuckles turn white.
The train was usually moderately full at both ends and thinned or filled as we progressed. On important holidays it would run with extra cars and be standing room only with holidaying students making a day trip to the beach or other attractions in Songkhla.
Since there was only one train on this branch I often wondered why they bothered with the track token exchange routine. The crew followed the rules however. Since we only stopped at Nam Noi if flagged, the train would lope along while the engineer or fireman dropped his token loop on the station catcher post and snagged the new token on the fly. It reminded me of passing up train orders and dropping off newspapers and milk on the Wishram, Washington - Bend, Oregon mixed train service I rode in pre-Amtrak 1971. I think it was a highlight of the working day for the crew. The Nam Noi stationmaster certainly had little else to do except tend the ducks and the family vegetable garden.
Power for this redundant but unique throwback to the days before roads and internal combustion engines didn't vary much. I remember the usual engine was blue and yellow diesel #521. It looked kitbashed from the wrecks of two, maybe more, early diesels. In fact it had won a grade crossing right-of-way argument with a bus and the sheet metal repairs were never quite finished. A Winston motor of some kind rumbled away inside as we rattled down the track.
Since there was no place to turn the engine in Songkhla, and never any opposing traffic, the train was sometimes worked in an unsophisticated push-pull mode. It must have driven the engine driver mad to drive half the day in reverse with the controls backward trying to see forward two or three coaches. Doing this in steam was politely described as bodhua mahk (big headache). As far as I could tell the only working brakes were on the engine. The coaches bumped and banged along at every stop. Usually however the engine was cut off in the end stations and run around the train so that it was on the point without being turned.
In push mode a trainman usually sat in the vestibule of the lead coach with his legs dangling over the coupler (no OSHA here). If we urgently needed to stop he had to stand and wave his red flag so that the engine driver could see it. Yep, down home railroading at it finest. The crews weren't sloppy, they just took the overall situation into consideration when deciding how strict to be on themselves.
Sometimes the Bullet was steam hauled with a fine looking, newly shopped, locomotive going through its break in off the mainline. Those were special days for me! Where else could I get forty miles behind, or in front of, a recently shopped 1954-ish steam locomotive for 15 cents round trip? Usually these engines were oil fired but wood burning mainline locomotives were still active in ordinary service past 1976.
In my journeys on the Bullet one incident stands out. It involved two other foreigners. In May of 1974 I was riding over to do a bit of business, and then reading at the now closed (1992) U.S. Consulate and U.S.I.S. library. Soon after boarding I noticed two foreigners. For the Bullet it wasn't out of the ordinary. There were always Australians and New Zealanders passing through on their own adventures. I was reading TIME. When I was done reading one of the foreigners came up and asked if he could borrow the magazine until we arrived in Songkhla. As we chatted it turned out that he and I had graduated from the same high school in San Diego, California a year apart and we had friends in common. A small world, the Songkhla Bullet in person.
When I revisited Haadyai in 1976 the Bullet was still running as if it would go on forever. This was not to be. Even in upcountry Thailand the wheels of progress were turning. The State Railway had a charter to get off the government's dole and drop redundant services. With fast and frequent bus competition on an intertwined parallel highway the Bullet was doomed to extinction. In 1985, my family's last visit, the Bullet was gone, communications wires drooping along the rusting track and the stations at Nam Noi and Songkhla derelict. Sic transit Gloria.
Last Train to Haadyai - Smuggler's Express
Phil Abbey - Actual events took place from August 1973 through July 1975. Written from my journal in June, 1995. Revised and re-posted November 23, 2001.
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