BANGKOK - For more than a century, the Hua Lamphong Railway Station has greeted and sent off tens of thousands of commuters each day in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown.
But it could soon be time for travellers to bid farewell to the historic central terminal, as Thailand's Transport Ministry mulls over decommissioning it to ease traffic congestion and looks to the new Bang Sue Grand Station to serve as the capital's main train terminus.
"Hua Lamphong is the first and last thing most people see when they enter Bangkok or leave to go home by train," freelance driver Siwakorn Phuangsupab, 34, told The Straits Times as he was about to go on a 10-hour train ride to Chiang Mai to visit his family.
At its peak, some 60,000 passengers walked through its green metal gates every day, passing under an entrance sign saying Bangkok Railway Station, which is otherwise known to locals as Hua Lamphong.
An earlier plan to stop all train services at the rail hub by last month has been put on hold, following public outcry from commuters, conservationists and railway workers.
It remains in operation as stakeholders, including the Transport Ministry and Hua Lamphong's operator, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), study the impact of the move. A public hearing will also be held, said the SRT.
For now, more than 100 trains continue to rattle and rumble in and out of Hua Lamphong's 12 platforms, serving commuters and travellers from all walks of life.
It used to serve over 80 million passengers a year, but the pandemic has since brought this down to just 35 million. Still, the station’s waiting hall remains bustling and seats are scarce even on a weekday afternoon.
Trips range from short-haul commutes to cross-country journeys and freight transport. Even the luxury Eastern and Oriental Express locomotive operating from Singapore to Bangkok makes its stop at the station.
One could almost say that all train tracks in Thailand lead to Hua Lamphong, as four out of five railway lines that extend throughout the country terminate at the 105-year-old station. It used to serve more than 80 million passengers, but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought this down to 35 million.Boarding a diesel train here also represents the beginning of homebound journeys or the start of adventure in a far-flung city.
Completed in 1916, the station is symbolic of modern Thai society through the development of its rail transport - an effort driven by King Chulalongkorn, whose portrait hangs in the waiting hall, flanked by other notable royalty.
The neo-Renaissance-style building, which sits on a 193,600 sq m compound, was designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno and inspired by the Frankfurt train station in Germany.
Today, Hua Lamphong - with its steel-arched roof, ornate wood and marble interior and large stained glass windows flanking its atrium - has become synonymous with Bangkok.
"The station has been with us for so long, it has many memories for people," said housewife Somboon Arpoinsengvichit, 60, who used to take the sleeper train north.
Architectural historian Chatri Prakitnonthakan considers Hua Lamphong one of the "most beautiful and elegant public buildings" in Thailand.
But more importantly, the station has provided cheap intercity transport for working-class and low-wage workers travelling to Bangkok's centre, with tickets starting from just a few baht.
But since 2013, the plan has been to relocate the central rail system to the 90 billion baht (S$3.6 billion) Bang Sue Grand Station, located in the suburbs about 9km north of Hua Lamphong. This means commuters will have to use additional transport to reach central Bangkok.
"It is a clear sign that the government does not care about the quality of life of the lower class and working class," said Dr Chatri, an associate professor at Silpakorn University in Bangkok. "The cost of travelling to the inner Bangkok area will increase unnecessarily."
Bang Sue Grand Station opened last year and boasts 26 platforms across 270,000 sq m.
Touted as South-east Asia's largest railway station, it will eventually be part of a network of high-speed rail services, including a line to China via Laos.
While train services for the new Red Line service have begun at the station, it functions mainly as a temporary Covid-19 vaccination centre.
Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob said in November that rail services from Hua Lamphong would be gradually reduced, with the eventual decommissioning of the station.
He said the move would ease traffic congestion caused by the periodic closures of roads at rail crossings in Bangkok.
The debt-ridden SRT also intends to auction off parts of the station's land for commercial development, which could help pay off its 600 billion baht burden.
The authorities have repeatedly said that the terminal’s iconic facade - most notably its multi-coloured glass windows with a 1.6m-wide clock as its focal point- will be preserved and a part of the station will be converted into a museum.
But the State Railway Workers' Union of Thailand is at odds with the plan to completely retire Hua Lamphong and has petitioned to keep it open.
It is unlikely that SRT workers' jobs are at stake, with Bang Sue Grand Station taking over as the main train hub.
The union's acting president Sarawut Saranwong believes that Hua Lamphong is too historically significant to stop functioning as a train station.
He hopes that even if commercial and public developments are eventually built on the site, train services - albeit fewer than before - continue to ply the platforms.
"It was built to serve its purpose as a train station. Instead of becoming a 'dead museum', why don't we continue using it as a train station so it can be a 'living museum' for people to enjoy," he said.