Commuters caught in chaos after Skytrain shuts down

BANGKOK - Hundreds of thousands of commuters woke up to a nightmare yesterday morning, when Bangkok's entire Skytrain system came to a complete halt during rush hours.

Traffic congestion spread far and wide. And hearts sank among workers who rushed to Skytrain stations only to find that the service was unavailable. Since its inception 14 years ago, never before had the entire BTS system been suspended for hours.

The unexpected incident was blamed on a problem related to the ongoing installation of platform screen doors, a new addition for increased passenger safety.

Due to the problem, BTS stopped its trains between 6am and 11am but the entire service fully resumed at about 1pm. It is estimated that about 200,000 trips were cancelled during the period.

"We would like to apologise to all our passengers," said Khiri Kanchanapas, chairman of Bangkok Mass Transit System Plc (BTSC), which operates the elevated electric train system. He ruled out external factors. "No. Politics is out of the question," he said.

The failure was tied to installation of platform screen doors at stations to increase passenger safety, similar to the doors at subway stations.

The trains make about 600,000 trips on an average day, but on days when the People's Democratic Reform Committee called mass anti-government rallies, the system was overwhelmed with riders heading to protest sites. Some people wondered if there was any political connection.

A representative of Bombardier Transportation Signal (Thailand), the contractor for the Bt600 million PSD project, was present at the press conference called by Khiri. Everyone insisted the problem arose during door installation and testing.

Thomas Godfrey, the firm's regional engineering director, said all engineers had been mobilised to determine the root cause of the problem.

BTSC said that after the installation work was stopped at Prom Phong, the Skytrain could resume operations at 10.30am, but there were "hiccups" on the stretch between Chit Lom and On Nut stations until 1.07pm.

Khiri said the problem was actually detected at 3am on Monday, but because there was no quick solution at hand, thousands of commuters were left frustrated when they were told that the system was out of service temporarily.

Gridlock quickly spread throughout the capital especially along roads that are usually accessible by the Skytrain.

Some commuters tried to warn their friends via Facebook, but many users were clearly too rushed to check their smartphones for posts before reaching their station, so they ended up joining huge crowds waiting at local bus stops.

Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt also alerted commuters to the Skytrain breakdown and suggested alternative transport, like the subway, which became packed with people.

"We have added trains in the morning hours. They arrive every three minutes. This is our maximum capacity," said Chaiwat Utaiwan, an executive of Bangkok Metro Plc, operator of the MRT underground system.