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Special Report

Express boats: Dirty, dangerous necessity

BANGKOK • A faulty gas tank aboard a Bangkok canal boat exploded in March, injuring at least 60 people. It took just a few days for commuters to overcome their jitters and pack into the express boats as usual.

For tens of thousands of commuters, the boat service plying the 18km stretch of Saen Saeb canal is an indispensable alternative to the constantly gridlocked Sukhumvit Road, which runs parallel to the waterway.

Some 60,000 people get on board every day. The service is run by just one company - Family Transport - which is headed by 60-year-old Chaovalit Metthayapraphat.

The entrepreneur, who met The Straits Times recently in a safari shirt, trekking pants and sandals, said he eventually paid out 20 million baht (S$770,000) in compensation for the accident. The gas tanks that he installed on boats to save on fuel costs have been removed.

But Mr Chaovalit, a law graduate from Ramkhamhaeng University - who dishes out corporate legal advice on the side - does not believe in coddling commuters lest it distracts him from his job of running an express boat service.

"I don't wait for passengers," he says, referring to the daily acrobatics performed by commuters who have just seconds to grab a rope on a boat, step on its bulwark, and steady themselves inside before the captain turns the engine on full throttle.

 

Many passengers fall into the water, he says. In an infamous video circulated on social media three years ago, two canal boats speeding by a pier churn up waves so high that commuters waiting at a pier lose their footing and almost fall into the canal.

Since setting up the canal boat service decades ago with an initial investment of 10 million baht, Mr Chaovalit has put in close to 1 billion baht to keep it going. Part of the job includes maintaining the piers and dredging the canal to keep them deep enough for his boats.

Asked if he might eventually introduce more environmentally friendly boats, such as those powered by electricity, he laughs. "I have no money," he says.

"Who knows, in the future, we might have solar-powered boats, but not mine."

Tan Hui Yee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Express boats: Dirty, dangerous necessity'. Print Edition | Subscribe