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BANGKOK — To ascend to BTS Mo Chit, one must first climb 45 steps. They might as well be a million for Manit Inpim, a wheelchair-bound activist who for years has fought for access to the popular rail service.
Twenty-one months after a landmark court decision gave the city a year to install elevators at all stations, a review by Khaosod English found that while many stations had what appear to be elevators – they don’t work.
After failing to comply with a Supreme Court order in January and asking for nine more months, the city now admits it has failed again to make good on its promise to make all stations accessible, faulting its contractor for being unable to complete the work.
Manit, one of the activists who has tracked progress and pushed for the policy, also blamed contractor Seri Construction along with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, which owns the system, and its contracted operator.
“The developer is not professional,” said Manit, who attends monthly meetings between City Hall and the contractor, Seri Construction. “And the BMA and BTS lack unity of cooperation to work.”
He said his group is weighing how to respond.
For its part, Seri Construction admitted the elevators won’t be available even by year’s end.
“We could make 60 percent progress by the end of September,” the manager of the project, Itthiphol Boonrak, said Sept. 7. “Probably almost 80 percent before Christmas.”
He didn’t explain the basis for those numbers, nor could he say when it would reach 100.
City Hall said they were aware the elevators would not be ready before the extended deadline.
“The developer cannot finish the work in time,” Deputy Bangkok Gov. Amorn Kijchawengkul said in a recent interview. “They can only work four hours a day – after midnight to 4am, when the BTS is closed.”
Visits to a number of stations found some elevator shafts in varying degrees of completion. Signs posted outside of them prohibited entrance and still promised they would be usable this month.
It was a phenomenal and historic victory when disability rights group Transportation For All prevailed against City Hall in January 2015. Ruling that access was a basic right and not a special accommodation, the Supreme Administrative Court ordered the city to install elevators and other facilities for the disabled at all of the elevated rail system’s original 23 stations. Judges gave them one year to comply.
The activists thought their 15 years of being denied the right to use Bangkok’s celebrated commuter rail line were over, eliminating their reliance on more expensive travel by taxi.
But that didn’t happen.
When the year was up this past January, the BMA admitted its failure, apologized and promised to complete it by September. The activists said they would be reasonable and wait nine more months.
Recent extensions have stations with elevators, though they are not automatic and require a staff member to respond to a request.
Of the original 23 Skytrain stations that opened in 1999 – Mo Chit to On Nut on the Sukhumvit Line and National Stadium to Saphan Taksin on the Silom Line – elevators were later added to five: Siam, Asoke, Mo Chit, On Nut and Chong Nonsi.
The activists say it hardly helps. Some have bells they’re required to ring in hope a staff member responds to their need for the elevator.
At BTS Siam, passengers were observed calling and using the elevator successfully. On Tuesday, a reporter found the elevator open and usable from street level at BTS Mo Chit. To get back down, security guards had to unlock the doors to use elevators down from the platform and concourse levels. Some activists say having to depend on staff doesn’t always work.
When staff are attentive, they are helpful and professional. A reporter traveling alone on crutches Wednesday was escorted up escalators at BTS National Stadium, and a staff member was waiting when he stepped onto the platform at BTS Asoke to lead him to the elevator there.
Up on the platforms, the trains pose their own limitations. Only the first car of each can accommodate a wheelchair.
Under the 2015 ruling, three elevators were to be installed at each BTS station: one connecting street to concourse level and two from there to each side of the platform.
Itthiphol said his company has finished street-level work, including the elevator housing and shaft, at 14 stations. He expected seven stations would have fully operational systems by the end of this month.
He said retrofitting the original, late 1990s infrastructure with elevators is problematic.
“I admit it is very difficult to add the elevators years after the BTS was built without a plan for it,” said the project manager.
The developer also acknowledged that only having one elevator at the street level for stations with typically four exits is not optimal.
People on the wrong side of the street will have to cross the road to reach the elevator – something that can pose a serious challenge in itself at some stations.
The activists said they have been consulted on occasion.
In July, they were invited to test the first set of elevators being installed at five stations.
“And when we tested, we found some problems needed to be fixed,” Manit said.
Among those stations was BTS Phrom Phong, which the city promised in January would be one of the first finished – by April. It remains unavailable today. On a recent visit, two elevator shafts in the station were unfinished.
The elevator shafts inside BTS Phrom Phong station leading to both sides of the platforms are still under construction despite the promise that it will be completed in April.
Sign of Things to Come?
‘Filing for compensation is the last option we want to consider’
At the most recent monthly joint meeting to discuss the project, Manit said no one from the city told him of the delay.
“I know that BMA submitted a letter to the court about the delay, but they have not yet informed us,” he said.
Rather than return to court, they’d hoped the power of the court order would see it done.
“Filing for compensation is the last option we want to consider,” he said.
Amorn said City Hall is trying to negotiate with its operator for the system to let work crews work longer than four hours per day. He said the activists would be informed once an agreement was reached.
He said BMA will also consider seeking financial compensation from Seri Construction.
According to a lawyer with the Law Reform Commission of Thailand, the burden is on the activists, who prevailed in their lawsuit, to notify the court that City Hall failed to satisfy the order.
Apichart Pongsawat said the court would then pursue legal remedy such as fining City Hall daily until it completes the construction.
Activists worry that today’s disappointment will be tomorrow’s disaster.
Beyond demonstrating a failure in legal measures, they say the inaccessibility of the BTS provides a glimpse of how the city’s ambitious rail network will look like when 10 more commuter extensions are completed
By then, Thailand will have an older population which will face the same challenges in a rail service they say was never truly built for everyone – not the disabled and not senior citizens.
“The rail system will then become a disaster for the country,” Manit said.