By Andrew Biggs
Life in Thailand is full of surprises, like last Saturday when I topped up my Easy Pass.
“Don’t use it for four hours,” the helpful toll booth attendant told me.
“I know,” I said. “I’ve topped it up before. But I appreciate your help.”
“Kha,” she said, helpfully.
And with that, I sped off down the freeway without a care in the world.
Just writing that — “without a care in the world” and all those “helpfuls” — belies what is going to happen next.
Four hours later, as I passed through my very first 50 Baht toll, I glanced contentedly at the digital display at the Easy Pass tollgate which reveals my balance, anticipating the 1,950 Baht figure that would pop up instantly.
It didn’t. Up came 1,680 Baht.
My whole world crashed around me.
My head started swimming faster than any early morning wake-up call after a night of intense debate with my Bombay relatives.
Had I just seen correctly?
Maybe it was an optical illusion, like a Rorschach Test where one person sees one thing and another sees something else. Was reality starting to become vague and indeterminable, as that volunteer at the Anonymous Clinic told me it might with prolonged usage?
I needed more evidence.
Here in Bangkok we have toll gates every kilometre or so on our freeways, cancelling out the value of taking the freeway in the first place, since each line to pay cash stretches back to the last tollgate.
This proliferation of toll gates is the result of successive governments doling out freeway extension contracts to any family member with a business and concrete. It would have been so much easier just to have the one company build the whole damned system, but think of all the other family members with time on their hands if they’d done that.
At the next toll gate I was vindicated. Another 50 Baht. My new balance was 1,630.
So it was true. Three hundred baht had simply disappeared off the face of the earth that sunny Saturday. Gone. In the twinkling of an eye, if indeed four hours can be considered a twinkle.
I am not a stingy person, irrespective of what the restaurant staff on the floor below my language school may whisper to you. A sum like 300 Baht is not worthy of a Letter To The Editor. Nevertheless I was intrigued, and not a little put out.
You see, I was dragged kicking and screaming to purchase my Easy Pass in the first place, and I have my friend Neil to thank for that.
You may remember Neil from the early days of this column. He is a kid in a candy store when it comes to technology. IBM, Iridium, Alta Vista … he’s embraced ‘em all.
He always has the latest electronic thing in his pocket before anybody else. Just the battery power from all his gadgets in his suitcase would light up Impact Arena for a good hour and a half.
“What? You haven’t got your Easy Pass yet?” Neil once sputtered from the front passenger seat of my car, or the Death Seat as it is known, which is the look I gave him immediately he said it.
It was a month after Easy Pass had come in, and I didn’t like the insinuation that I was out of date.
“Listen I’ve been in Thailand longer than you,” I shot back. “I’m not going to hurry into these things. I’ll wait until they iron out all the glitches before I go near it.”
“Why do you have to be so skeptical about everything?” Neil asked.
“I’m not! And if I am, which I’m not, it’s healthy to be skeptical.”
“What you just said made no sense.”
“I’m flattered you heard what I said, given the attention you’re giving that thing in your hands.”
For Neil it is important to be up to date. For me it is too, but I don’t equate new models of telephones as a yardstick of modernity. So no, I didn’t go diving into Easy Pass like some people I knew because I anticipated all sorts of problems with the system.
Neil was right.
Those three words are as hard for me to say as I’m sure it is for women to give birth, but he was. There were no glitches in the outset. It was only after I purchased mine that the problems began.
I decided on a whim one day on the Kanchanapisek Highway, where the line-up to pay the toll outweighs any extra time you may have saved taking the road in the first place.
Well this week I was burned to the tune of 300 Baht, and so I started doing some investigations.
The Easy Pass people at Bangna were very friendly when I dropped in. They did express surprise at my ignorance of the entire controversy which erupted last month with the Transport Minister having to apologize.
It appears the whole computer program written for the system is stuffed, thanks to it being hopelessly unprepared for Bangkok traffic.
“The original Easy Pass program was designed for a maximum of 500,000 vehicles to use,” an Easy Pass staffer explained to me.
That sentence in itself perhaps reveals the excruciating lack of brain cells on the part of the Expressway Authority of Thailand, or Exat as it is known.
Here is an organization that knows more than you and I do about how much traffic there is in this congested city. So who thought that in a city of 10 million people, where even unborn fetuses own vehicles, there would only be a need for only 500,000 Easy Passes?
I don’t work for the expressway authority but it didn’t take me long to discover there are 7.5 million registered vehicles in Bangkok, or one per every man, woman, child and family pet.
Last year 1,225 new vehicles went onto Bangkok roads every day.
That’s a lot of cars for a city with a total of 4,200 kilometres of road. With 7.5 million vehicles, that averages out to exactly 56 centimetres of road per vehicle – how on earth does that work?
When this government was elected to power mid-2011, it must have seen these disturbing figures. Faced with a traffic problem of nightmarish proportions, what did it do as a priority?
Odd-even license plates? An upgrade in mass transit systems?
Er, no. It announced tax refunds for first car buyers! Was this the only incident in history where a government actively encouraged crippling traffic congestion in the face of crippling traffic congestion?
But let us return to Exat, an authority that thinks a system for 500,000 vehicles is more than adequate for a city where every car claims 56 centimetres of road.
The inevitable happened. The system got overloaded. Exat rewrote its computer program to accommodate one million users. And that’s where we are at present, because as of now there are 1.2 million Easy Pass users.
Crash goes the system.
It turns out Easy Pass hasn’t cheated me as much as it has been slow in deducting payments in its burgeoning, antiquated system.
Isn’t that a relief? I can return to my contented daily life in a city of 10 million people, with 7.5 million vehicles on a mere 4,200 kilometres of road.
“You didn’t know about the Easy Pass mess?” my friend Neil sputtered when I told him about it this week. “You not very up to date, are you?”