They were built for snow. Lots of snow.
The 17 white and lavender painted Japanese passenger train carriages are powered by diesel to effortlessly travel through meters of fresh powder. The locomotive’s slanted nose helps prevent snow from sticking to the front of the train. And the train driver’s cab is raised to improve visibility in harsh weather conditions.
The carriages once served as the “Okhotsk” limited express train connecting Hokkaido’s main city, Sapporo, to Abashiri on the east coast of Hokkaido. It is a famous place for drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk in winter.
Soon, instead of the cold, the train will feel the warmth of the tropics. JR Hokkaido donated the fleet of 17 KIHA 183 train series cars to Thailand after decommissioning it in 2016. The kingdom covering shipping costs from Japan’s northern prefecture to Thailand, the cars arrived at the port of Laem Chabang about 100 kilometers south of Bangkok, the Thai capital, late last year.
After landing in Thailand, the train had to be rearranged to accommodate not only the different climate, but also the different track gauge. While trains in Japan mainly run on 1.067 meter gauge, the Thai system only uses one meter wide tracks. State Railway of Thailand (SRT) spent 42.5 million Thai BHT (1.1 million USD) on the shipment and will pay an additional 3.4 million BHT (89,000 USD) to modify and repair the wagons.
The costs of refurbishing 40-year-old cars didn’t sit well with everyone. SRT chief executive Nirut Maneephan had to defend his decision, pointing out that refitting the used train was much cheaper than buying a new one. “Used Japanese train carriages are of high quality and can still work for years,” he recently pointed out to critics.
The given cars are not the first of the KIHA 183 series to have their final destination in a tropical climate. In 2008, Japan donated 19 disused KIHA diesel cars to Myanmar Railways. JR Kyushu reconditioned the units for overseas use, and the newly adapted train began operating in 2009.
The cars then traveled the route from the temple city of Mandalay to the modern capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw. It is a journey of about 250 kilometers, or five hours. The train ran until 2012 when Myanmar Railways stopped using the KIHA 183 series.
Plans for tourists
For the Thai railway, the Hokkaido train is not the first Japanese addition to its rolling stock. An ex-Japanese first-class sleeping car runs on some services between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, a northern city.
The renovated Hokkaido train will run on shorter routes. Where exactly is still unclear.
“SRT hopes the KIHA 183 trains will play an important role in promoting tourism in Thailand,” SRT chief Maneephan said. As tourists slowly return to Thailand after the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Thailand is looking for new ways to boost the sector. Rail tourism is one of the plans.
Currently, however, few tourists travel through Thailand by train. It’s an experience that mostly appeals to backpackers and other people with lots of free time looking for a unique way to see the country.
Train travel has been almost entirely replaced by bus and plane. Many Thais last traveled long distances by train as children.
Old colorful terminal
However, it is easy to see the appeal of train travel. Thailand has beautiful train stations. Bangkok’s main railway station, Hua Lamphong, is one of them. It’s a terrific 19th century building with high ceilings and stained glass windows that elude the old world charm.
Admittedly, the station and its trains are far from the glamor and luxury of the Orient Express. But the atmosphere is special. A group of orange-robed Buddhist monks wait on wooden benches in the station concourse. Some western tourists with backpacks head to one of the platforms. A food vendor sits on the stone floor patiently waiting for customers, with his bicycle beside him.
The Hua Lamphon terminus itself was due to close at the end of 2021. It was to be turned into a museum and replaced by a brand new rail hub in Bangkok’s Bang Sue district, a less central location. However, the plan was not very popular with the public and the main station move was delayed.
There is now talk that perhaps in early 2023 the first train services will be moved to the modern station. But as of now, the renovated Hokkaido train is still supposed to depart from the century-old station to a popular tourist destination relatively close to Bangkok.
The historic seaside town of Hua Hin, 200 kilometers from Bangkok could be a possible route. Another option would be Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, with its ruins and temples. Although it is only 70 kilometers from the capital, considering the modest speed of Thai trains, it is still two hours by train.
A Japanese experience
The Thai Hokkaido train has been repainted in its original colors. And it retains some of its Japanese elements, like Japanese posters and writings, to give passengers a taste of Japanese retro train travel.
“They are going to offer tourists a whole new experience,” Maneephan said. In early September, the first test with three wagons from the Makkasan marshalling yard in central Bangkok to a neighboring province 70 kilometers away went off without a hitch.
The old Hokkaido train was originally scheduled to enter regular service in October. But now it’s more likely to start at the end of the year for sightseeing trips that give visitors a taste of train travel in Hokkaido without leaving Thailand.
Author: Agnes Tandler (Reporting from Bangkok)
Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, Agnes Tandler has been based in Japan, where her reporting covers COVID-19 for a daily newsletter on health care in Germany. Find his other essays and reports for JAPAN Striker here.