On August 3rd, having just flown back from Helsinki, Sam and I found ourselves racing to get to Don Muang train station in order to get a pair of last minute tickets back to Chiang Mai.
We ran up to the ticket window looking like sweaty mules with all of our oversized bags and inquired about availability.
The young woman behind the counter turned the computer screen towards us; the next train was leaving at 18:57 and there were only two tickets available - in first class.
“We’ll take those!” I yelled from the other side of the glass, half fearing someone else would snatch them up before she had a chance to print them out.
Having just spent the previous day and a half travelling from a remote island in the Finnish archipelago, to Helsinki, to Istanbul, to Bangkok, we didn’t care about the price. We have taken this train many times before and we have always opted for second class tickets; today would be a splurge.
* * *
The train arrived a full half hour later than scheduled, but aside from that nothing out of the ordinary happened.
We boarded carriage #11, the very last carriage on the train, and ordered a curry set to share (as usual). I took the lower berth, Sam was resigned to the upper berth, and we soon dozed off with the rocking motion of the train.
I woke up once during the night to the sound of the metal guard rail on the upper berth grinding with the sway of the train, so I took it down. I was then woken up a second time by Sam who was looking for water, and we put the guard rail back up. I’m glad we did, because at around 2:30 am the train’s motion changed from a gentle side-rocking sway to a very sharp rattle.
The doors to our private compartment swung open, the luggage slid across the floor, and we came to an abrupt halt.
Sam sat up in bed,
“Did we just go off the tracks?”
“Of course not,” I argued, “we probably just nearly missed a train station and had to brake a little last minute.”
Since I assumed we were at a station, I waited for the train to pull out, but it never did.
We couldn’t see anything out of the window in our private compartment, so I walked out to the hall to have a look out of the opposite side of the carriage.
I was shocked to see a wall of rock.
We were inside a tunnel.
This was all very strange.
When we didn’t start moving again, passengers in the neighbouring compartments began to wake up and wander down the halls in search of answers.
The snippets of information trickled down slowly. There was talk of another train coming for us (why did we need another train?), there was talk of there being smoke in the carriages up front (why was there smoke and where were these rumours coming from?), but for the most part the attendants were just trying to coerce everyone to stay in their compartments and go back to bed.
Thinking the train had probably just experienced a minor mechanical mishap, I went back to sleep.
I dozed off for another two hours or so, but when I woke up again nothing had changed.
We were still trapped inside the tunnel and I was starting to smell fumes. (Did they have the engines running while we were in the tunnel?)
By 5:00 am we learned that our train had in fact derailed.
The train attendants informed us that there was another train about 20 minutes away coming to get us.
We were told to quickly pack all of our belongings and when they gave us the signal, we hopped out of the last carriage with all of our bags in tow.
The tunnel was dark and the ground was wet.
Flashlights partially illuminated the way to a series of trolleys that had been arranged to transport the larger pieces of luggage as well as some passengers out of the tunnel. However, because the trolleys were full by the time everyone disembarked, most of us ended up having to trek out of the muddy tunnel on foot.
When we reached the end of the 382 meter tunnel, I was surprised to see that it was already daylight. It was past 6 am and we were in the middle of the lush jungle.
Officials and train personnel were already on site, as were numerous workers who I imagined would be trying to dig out the train later on.
Passengers were lead to a waiting train that had come to pick us up, and we then began backtracking all the way to Sila-at railway station where rows of double-decker buses were standing by ready to take us the remainder of the 4 hour journey to Chiang Mai.
I was impressed with the way the train officials handled the situation. Considering the train went off the tracks in a rather remote region in the Uttaradit province in the early hours of the morning, it must have been quite the task to get another train out to our location, evacuate the 415 passengers, and then arrange for alternate transportation to Chiang Mai.
However, it worries me that these train derailments are far too common and seem to be occurring more and more often.
How serious was the accident?
After reading about the accident on the Bangkok Post the following day, I learned that the only reason our train did not overturn was because the derailment happened inside the tunnel. Two of the eight carriages jumped off the tracks, and the only thing holding these upright were the tunnel’s walls.
The suspected cause of the accident? The deteriorating condition of the rail tracks.
I am feeling pretty fortunate that all 415 passengers were able to walk away from this accident unscathed.
This very same train going from Chiang Mai to Bangkok derailed just a few weeks ago on July 17 causing multiple injuries on travellers aboard.
And that’s just one of many incidents involving Thai trains.
What’s even more worrisome is that in the past trains have derailed on level ground, but when you are travelling through the Thai jungle, there are many sections where the ground drops on either side of the track and there is nothing but jungle below. What if the train were to derail along that section of the track as opposed to inside a tunnel?
I have taken Thai trains multiple times during the past few months living in Thailand, however, all these recent accidents have me questioning whether it’s safe to do so.