Safely meeting ferry passenger demand in Thailand

Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram from Chao Phraya Express Boat Co tells Sandra Speares what it takes to deliver an effective service to over 36,000 customers per day

Safely meeting ferry passenger demand in Thailand
CPEX's ferries provide services for both locals and tourists in Bangkok, Thailand

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Since its establishment in 1971, Chao Phraya Express Boat Co (CPEX) has played an increasingly important role in the life of the people of Bangkok and its catchment area.

The company’s original fleet of vessels was bought from the government under Thailand’s Ministry of Transport. “The objective was to provide an alternative commuting route to relieve the heavy traffic congestion on the road,” explains Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram, the third female generation of the family to head the business.

The service operates along the Chao Phraya river from the North suburb of Bangkok (Nonthaburi province) into the city of Bangkok over a total distance of 27 kilometres. There are approximately 200 trips per weekday, using 49 out of 57 boats. “The various different vessels stop at different piers and therefore pricing is worked out according to this, the number of stops the ferries make along the way and how long it takes to reach the destination,” says Pichaironarongsongkram. “The trips are colour-coded to reflect this, with 18 yellow flag, eight green flag and 19 orange flag vessels, as well as four local craft and eight for maintenance.”

The number of services is geared to accommodate peak periods with a higher intensity of services, which then slows down outside peak hours, Pichaironarongsongkram says. “Then we pick up again at the evening rush hour.”

The average number of passengers per working day throughout the year is 36,000, although numbers may be slightly less during the rainy season. Passenger numbers annually are expected to be of the order of 11 million for 2018, compared to 10.6 million in 2017 and 10.4 million in 2016, so traffic numbers remain fairly stable. Customers include a mix of commuters and the general public as well as tourists, both local and international.

The prospects for an increase in numbers going forward are promising. “The government is building a Skytrain and underground with links to the river, so by next year we will have four different stations with a link to river services,” Pichaironarongsongkram says.

Thus, the river boat service will become part of a network linking the underground and the Skytrain with different points along the river. “Right now, we only have one Skytrain connection,” Pichaironarongsongkram says. “BTS Skytrain runs through all important downtown districts and major transport hubs in Bangkok. If we can receive 10,000 more passengers per day when this new system is achieved, we will be very happy.”

The plan is to upgrade the fleet to accommodate the new demand with low wash, 24-metre catamarans. One of the other companies in the group is already set to take delivery of four new vessels designed by Australian naval architect Schwetz Design, although CPEX has yet to sign a contract for its own vessels.

The vessels will be delivered in kit form, for assembly in Thailand. It is hoped that they will be able to carry up to 200 passengers – 70 more than existing vessels. “This development provides a new picture for the future, with delivery starting in the next two years,” Pichaironarongsongkram says. “We will start building, probably at the end of the year. Initially between four and eight ferries will be built.”

The government controls the prices that CPEX can charge for its services, so in order to fit in with the new transport developments on shore, the ferries will have to offer the equivalent level of service, speed and comfort to justify higher pricing on that leg of the transport chain.

“The government is expected to give its answer on the project soon,” Pichaironarongsongkram says.

The new tonnage will be low wash and will burn low emission fuels, through which Pichaironarongsongkram says the company will make its contribution to reducing pollution levels in Bangkok. “I think we are doing our bit to give passengers air conditioning, comfort, safety and a much better boat,” she says.

The company has several different businesses including boat charters for canal tours, and other tourist services serving piers around Bangkok. In the combined group there are around 90 vessels serving about 50,000 people a day. This is in stark contrast to the ferries and services the company provided when it first began operation. “We started with a single route with just 70 trips per day,” Pichaironarongsongkram says. “We had just one engine boat carrying 90 passengers.”

Over time, new services were created, including weekend tours for local tourists. In 2011, the company established the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat to transport international tourists to tourist destinations along the river with a ‘hop on, hop off’ service.

The company’s evolution over the years has come from an increase in passenger demand, especially during rush hour traffic. “The need to improve safety standards by building larger vessels also influenced our growth,” Pichaironarongsongkram says. “We now have regular training sessions to maintain safety standards, ongoing communication between the Marine Department and strict procedures before embarking and disembarking the pier. There is also, of course, regular maintenance of equipment onboard, piers and floating devices. The new catamaran hull will comply with international safety design standards.”

The company is also in the process of developing a Boat Station with an announcement system on the pier, a passenger waiting area, ticket vending machine, electronic gates, wi-fi, CCTV and security personnel. “We’re proud of our punctual, quick and reliable service and connection with other modes of transportation,” Pichaironarongsongkram concludes. “It’s these things that keep our customers coming back.”

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Friday, January 11, 2019