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The BBC's Simon Ingram
"This is a historic day for the people of Bangkok"
 real 28k

Sunday, 5 December, 1999, 15:11 GMT
Skytrain to clear the Bangkok air
skytrain Wheelchair-bound users have tested the system

One of the world's most polluted cities has a new weapon in the war against congested streets with the opening of a $1.5bn transport system.

Bangkok's Skytrain - the city's first electric train service - began regular commercial service on Sunday.

The opening was timed to coincide with the 72nd birthday of the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

We hope this will ease up some of the central portion of the city
Bhichit Rattakul
The Thai capital has long suffered some of the world's most appalling traffic jams.

The 23km (15 mile) Skytrain route - which is built on concrete pillars running above the city streets - is the first part of what city officials say will be a much bigger integrated transport system.

They say Skytrain will eventually be joined by an underground train line and a number of feeder routes.

'Moment of truth'

However, even before the system opens, critics have complained that the new station stops have been built without car parking facilities, and that ticket prices are double those of the bus network.

Skytrain Trains run above the city streets
The operators have conducted extensive tests along the elevated track, anxious to ensure as smooth a start-up to the system as possible.

For Bangkok governor, Bhichit Rattakul, the moment of truth has arrived.

"We hope that after this route has been started, it will ease up some of the central portion of the city, where the heavily-congested traffic happens during the daytime," he said.

"We hope the people who drive their own cars and people who use taxis will be shifting towards this mass transit."

The Skytrain project has had a chequered history surviving environmental opposition and the fallout from the Asian economic crisis.

A row over the price of fares was only resolved at the last minute.

But it remains to be seen whether the speedy blue and white trains really will banish the mammoth traffic jams for which Bangkok is justly renowned.

Royal celebrations

The opening of the railway was one among many events that marked King Bhumibol's birthday.

Revered by his 62 million subjects, King Bhumibol has ruled for 53 years and is the world's longest-reigning monarch.

Thais regard the 72nd birthday as particularly important, since it marks the end of the sixth of the 12-year cycles into which a man's life is divided.

Celebrations over the past month included a procession of gilded barges down the polluted Chao Phraya River, and 572 skydivers setting a mass freefall record over Bangkok.

Flags were waved and temple bells rang to mark the birthday itself.

The 1,500 Thais serving in the East Timor peacekeeping force held a candlelight vigil to coincide with a similar event involving tens of thousands of people in Bangkok.

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