Morpheus on… My Thailand Train Crash

I will never forget the morning of the 22nd of March, 2006. It was the day that the Butterworth to Bangkok express hit a ten-ton grain truck on a level crossing. Being asleep, back in coach number 13, all I suffered was a rude awakening. Others were not so lucky.

Having quickly dressed, I went to see what we had hit. As I surveyed – and photographed – the tangled wreckage, it became readily apparent what had happened. The truck had come across the single rail-track from the left, dodging around the half-barriers, when its front had been hit square-on by the locomotive.

The loco was on its side in a paddy-field, its undercarriage ripped away as it had ploughed over the truck’s cabin. The emergency services were already removing the luckless train-driver from what remained of his cab. There was no hurry.

What little remained of the truck’s cabin was receiving the same treatment – while the dead and dying were being freed from coach number 1. It was obvious that my continued presence would not help matters, so I removed myself from the scene.

News reports regarding the cause of the disaster merely echoed my own first impression; it had been the truck-driver’s fault.

But examining my photos later, it realised I might have been a bit hasty. I had noticed something which, at the scene, had only grazed my subconscious and which, had I not spent five years with [a large electronics corporation] as a Road Traffic Systems Engineer, I would probably have missed entirely.

The half-barriers were down and UNDAMAGED, but their control-box had been CRUMPLED by the back end of the truck, as it had been swept past, by the loco. This was clearly indicated by the marks in the grass, both on the photos and in my vivid memory of the scene.

But that did not square with the early news stories I had read, in which a rail official claimed the truck had RAMMED THROUGH the barrier. Since the truck had clearly come from the train’s LEFT (the position and condition of the wreckage proved that) and the left barrier was INTACT (as my PHOTOS showed) I KNEW that was an outright LIE – but this did not stop the Police and other media repeating it.

Later stories declared the truck-driver had been stoned, drunk – or just incredibly stupid – and had driven AROUND the half-barriers.

But that made no sense either. The crash had occurred at 07:45 on a bright, clear morning – NOBODY is incapable at that time. And whilst manoeuvring a vintage, fully-laden ten-tonner AROUND two half-barriers – at SPEED according to one report – across a single rail-track might not be impossible, it would NOT have been easy (I once drove trucks as well).

Furthermore, would a man responsible for his own life, that of his young passenger (the reports stated the occupants had been the truck’s owner and a younger man) his truck (his livelihood) never mind its load (representing perhaps six months’ work for a family – possibly his own) NOT have simply taken the trouble to turn his head a few degrees, thus enabling him to look down a clear, STRAIGHT track, where he would have observed several hundred tons of TRAIN heading straight for him??

It just did not add up – but another scenario DID. I BELIEVE THAT WHEN THAT TRUCK-DRIVER APPROACHED THE CROSSING – THE BARRIERS WERE UP.

And he did what we ALL do when given the official all-clear – he trusted to luck and carried on. But on that fatal March morning, his luck ran OUT – along with that of six other people.

Then as the rear of his truck was slammed into the barriers’ control-box – destroying it – the power to the barriers now being CUT, they SAFETY-DEFAULTED. Simply dropped down, under their own weight.

For the fault to have happened, would only have taken a minor glitch in the sensors, their wiring, or the control-box itself. The site was rural. The fault could have existed for some time without even being reported.

But I was alive and the dead were dead. So why was I troubled? Because I had this recurring vision of a widow weeping for her dead husband. Perhaps also for her eldest son (the other passenger?) For the stigma she and her remaining children would bear for LIFE; that her husband/their father had been a stoned, drunk or reckless fool who had caused his own and several other deaths, plus varied injuries to some fifty others.

AND for the fact that she and her children now had no income (Thailand has no welfare system). The State Railway of Thailand would have been unlikely to entertain a compensation claim from her – their position was her husband broke their train.

But WAS it his fault? If the crash had happened in The West, within months the autopsy results would have been submitted, along with the lab’s report on the remains of the barriers’ control-box (even a smashed circuit can reveal faults that occurred before its destruction) wiring and sensors. Blame would have been apportioned and recommendations made.

However, this happened in Thailand. Public enquiries are VERY expensive. And this one might JUST have shown that the fault had lain with the barrier-system which, according to an SRT official I spoke with, were maintained by the SRT THEMSELVES.

Which would have been EMBARRASSING.

But so far as I was able to establish, NO inquiry took place. The SRT simply cleared up the mess, repaired the line and went back to business as usual.

Now, while it is POSSIBLE the truck-driver was single (the passenger being his “longtime companion”) and pissed as a fart at seven forty-five in the morning, yet still able to negotiate a large, ageing truck around a half-barrier (at speed?) without even scratching it, I maintain that MY scenario HAS to be more LIKELY – just on PERCENTAGES.

Thus being doubtless the ONLY retired Road Traffic Systems Engineer on that train, I realised it fell to ME to DO something about this probable grave injustice. But as a Stranger living In A Strange Land – subtlety was needed. I LIVE here. And to those who issue visas, a concerned citizen is one step short of an activist – and an activist is one step short of a TERRORIST.

So I wrote a piece for a certain Bangkok-based English-language newspaper (the ABOVE piece, more or less) and tried to get them to publish it. And also, get their investigative journalists to follow it up. But nothing happened.

At first, they claimed to have LOST the piece. But when I pointed out I had sent it by registered post – and they had SIGNED for it – they eventually caved and printed it. Including the bit at the end which read, “…I call upon the [name of the newspaper], an organ I trust, to take it on and pursue the truth.”

Unfortunately, it transpired they TOO were Strangers In A Strange Land and had not stayed in business throughout Thailand’s many political ups and downs by making themselves BUSY. All of their foreign news came off the wires, whilst local news reports were merely regurgitated press handouts. They did not HAVE investigative journalists.

So unless someone important saw my piece and ACTED on it – I doubt anything was ever done. But at least I can look at myself in the shaving mirror and say I TRIED.

Meanwhile, the next time YOU approach a level crossing – or indeed, just a regular road traffic-light – remember, they DO NOT ALWAYS WORK. As a now-RETIRED Road Traffic Systems Engineer, I can tell you that during five years in the job – in ENGLAND – I encountered THREE sets of lights that had “conflicting greens” (a green both ways).

It HAPPENS.

In fact, my company once asked me to appear as an “expert witness” in a trial involving a fatal RTA (Road Traffic Accident) and state that a green conflict was impossible. I refused. When they asked why, I listed the ones I had SEEN.

So I am sorry if you are a motorist and I have just ruined your illusions. Of course, you CAN LEGALLY slow down to walking-speed every time you approach a green light, enabling you to establish that the traffic coming the other way HAS actually stopped – if you do not mind the constant honking of angry motorists and the occasional DOZY one rear-ending you.

But realistically, all you can ACTUALLY do is what the driver of that grain-truck probably did, on that fateful day – having been given the official all-clear – plough on and hope for the best. After all, traffic-lights USUALLY work…

Footnote: My photographic record of the disaster (including the ones showing the flattened control box and the INTACT barrier) can be seen at – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGYzkksGGuE  
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13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dave Searle on May 1, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    It happens here in the UK too! However, CCTV tends to show that there are far too many idiots who think that the barrier and flashing red lights don’t apply to them! If they only killed themselves I’d say it was Darwinism at work but they persist in taking out innocents too.

    If I take the shorter route to work I cross 4 half-barrier crossings – the one in Whittlesey is on a main road AND by a signal box but the other 3 are out in the wilds of the fens at a place called Turves. The line crosses the zig-zagging road at a sharp angle so one way you can see easily while the other way needs a lot of neck-craning!

    After reading this I’m going to either take them slower or go the 5 mile longer route which has no crossings at all!

    Thank you.

    Dave Searle

  2. My pleasure. Maybe I’ve saved your life!

  3. Posted by Cy Quick on May 1, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    A superb piece of Sherlock Holmes work, first-hand reporting, and investigative journalism! For every up-side when one leaves the West (for example lovely weather, fascinating cultural context, and reasonable-cost living) there can be a downside (as per the above tragic and disconcerting account).

  4. Posted by theworldaccordingtomorpheus on June 22, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    And now the Thai government is planning on privatising (commercialising) their rail network.

    Yeah, that’ll help.

  5. Excellent post! I love your writing style. I used to deliver newspapers with a friend (she drove) and if we didn’t cross the tracks and get back in time, we’d be stuck waiting for the train to stop and unload. So she always sped across, tossed the paper at the house at the end of the road and sped back, even going across the tracks (no barriers) in front of the train (on my side). Sure it was going very slow, but anything could have happened (especially since she didn’t take good care of the car). Just an example of people’s stupidity.

    In Maryland, there are crosswalks that don’t do you any good trusting since the cars don’t care. The light turns red and they keep going. If you pause when it turns green (like a normal, sane person would do knowing that intersection), people beep, cuss and flip you off. Some people aren’t interested in safety but they’ll ask for sympathy when something happens that could have been avoided. Many letters were written to the police to try and get better safety there. One told me they crossed in the crosswalk and had no problems (sure, if speeders see a cop crossing, they’re gonna obey!), even though several people have been hit there. Other times they pass jurisdiction to other branches (and vice versa). It’s crazy.

    But, it’s better to be beeped at and whatnot than to jump the light. And I’m glad you made it off the train safely!

  6. Posted by theworldaccordingtomorpheus on October 3, 2009 at 2:22 am

    Thanks for that. While reading it, a thought occurred to me for the first time. In America, most trains (at least, the ones I’ve seen in movies – I’ve not actually been there) have a “cow-catcher” on the front of the engine. This would normally scoop cars – and possibly trucks – out of the way.

    But in Thailand, despite having water buffalos roaming freely, the trains have NO such devices – which explains why the carnage in MY crash was so great. I.e., the loco climbed OVER the grain truck.

    My YouTube video of the incident (see above footnote) clearly shows the loco’s undercarriage having been RIPPED away. (It also shows the intact half-barrier and smashed control box – the intact box controls signals).

    Incidentally, the afore-mentioned video – after The Girls Of The Crazy Horse’s “You Turn Me On” – is my second-biggest “hit-gatherer”. Sadly, it seems death sells…

  7. Wow, that does look pretty bad! I didn’t even think about the cow catcher fronts. Seems like they’d be a good idea on any train.

    In my state (Maryland), there’s been quite a few young people getting hit by trains (the really fast ones like the Metros or whatever) because they’re out on the tracks or walking along them. Seems like after one news report of it happening, they wouldn’t be walking along there, but they don’t consider it, I guess.

    I like the one photo in your video of the couple hugging. Really says a lot with that shot.

  8. Posted by theworldaccordingtomorpheus on October 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Yes. My sense of the dramatic lead me to enlarging that shot from the previous one. Then I timed the music (Gorecki’s “Sorrowful Songs”) to hit its climax during the shot. I ended the piece with two “paradise” shots I’d taken earlier. Sort of “life goes on” kinda thing.

    Incidentally, ANOTHER crash occurred a few days ago, not far from the same place. This time, although details are sketchy, it appears the train didn’t HIT anything – just derailed. However, perhaps it was going too fast, as there appears to be an issue concerning the driver.

    Reports say the signalling people tried to contact the driver and crew (why?) but got no response. While the driver is claiming he FAINTED – but the SRT people want medical evidence to support this. Sounds like he fell asleep at the wheel (well, levers).

    These days, thankfully, I don’t travel so much. Then again, stats show the worst place for accidents is one’s OWN HOME! But as I’ve said elsewhere: “We live in a dangerous World – but where else can you go?”

  9. I’m thinking having the train hit something would be a BIT less unsettling than it just derailing. Eek!

    I guess money is thought to be better spent on other things than this. Still, when you make a complaint about something dangerous and those in charge say “It’s not a big enough problem yet to deal with,” it makes you wonder what IS a big enough problem and how many people are supposed to be killed before something is done.

  10. Posted by theworldaccordingtomorpheus on October 22, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    It has been said that in Thailand, life is cheap.

    However, these things happen in the West, too. Recently, a crash happened in the States, where about the same number of casualties occurred as happened in MY crash. It seems the only difference was in the settlement afterwards – in America, it ran into the millions – but here…?

    Aside from the train-driver and occupants of the truck, the dead and most badly injured were travelling in the front carriage – which was the FIRST CLASS one (I was back in carriage #13, being now a resident – when a tourist, I TOO used to travel first class – a sobering thought at the time) so it meant that many were monied. But I imagine trying to crowbar millions from the State Railway of Thailand would have been difficult.

    The thing is, in the West, governments spend money on safety procedures – and inquiries, when they fail – but at the end of the day, LIFE has a price. For example – near where I used to live, in England, was a dual-carriageway. Being only an “A” road (not a Motorway) it was not required by LAW to have Armco down the middle. Thus, every year, a number of people DIED in “cross-over accidents” who could have been alive today.

    When I asked about this, I was told that the cost of the Armco would have been higher than the cost of the accidents – attendance of emergency services, wrecked vehicles, hospital and funeral costs, etc. Someone had actually worked it OUT in cold, hard CASH.

    Which meant that in ENGLAND, while the cost of a life might have been HIGHER than here – it still HAD a price…

  11. We think we’re evolving into better people and trying to make the world a better, safer place, yet there are some who think it’s okay to cut corners and neglect safety when they know bad things could be prevented. I imagine if some big-shot decision-maker lost a loved one in one of those situations, things would get done a bit faster.

    Do they build things over there that they don’t have a need for? Like in the US they can have a sports stadium and then build a brand new one a few years later so they can increase the prices and all. Nothing wrong with the old one, but they add more anyway. Money which could have gone to something else more important.

  12. Posted by theworldaccordingtomorpheus on October 23, 2009 at 4:22 am

    Sadly yes. The Thais LOVE building things! Trouble is, they often don’t think things through – which results in all sorts of waste. However, now that things are easing here (the East is benefiting from the West’s financial woes – unfortunately, my money is in UK Pounds – but that’s another story – a SAD one!) some of the half-finished projects are being/have been finished.

    As for the rest – I wish I could be more optimistic about man’s greed and stupidity – but man don’t make it EASY! I’m now retired and figure on keeping my HEAD DOWN, while hoping for the best.

    Meanwhile, I try to make MY bit of the World better. My cat and dog are rescues – MY rescues. And I try to get on with everyone. Also, I rant about the injustices and absurdities of life in my blogs – and try to spread some good entertainment in my YouTube pieces!

  13. Good plan! I have a habit of picking up pieces of trash when I’m out and about, donating some money here and there, etc. At least we’re doing something! Too bad everyone else can’t do the same.

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