YANGON – Tourists visiting Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, could lose one of the star attractions of the former capital after the railway that encircles the city is upgraded with the help of Japanese investment.
While the responsibility for upgrading the 46 km (28.5 miles) of track that makes up the Yangon Circular Railway rests with Myanmar Railways, the cost of new signaling and trains for the line is being met by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which is aiming to have everything up and running by 2020.
While this may be good news for commuters — currently trains take around three hours to complete a circuit, while the new system will take less than two — tourists may not welcome the change as much, with many using the line as a way of experiencing rail travel in a less-developed setting, and seeing a cross section of life in the city’s urban and rural areas at a leisurely pace.
The route passes through 38 mostly ramshackle stations, beginning at Yangon Central station on the northern edge of the city’s downtown area.
Speaking at Yangon Central, American tourist Cari said she had opted to ride the train to relax and make the best of a rainy day.
“My plan is just to do something that’s a little bit laid back and to be able to see a lot of different parts of Yangon culture,” she said.
And culture is abundant on the Yangon Circular Railway. Da Nyin Gone Station provides a market selling fresh fruit and vegetables beside the railway, while Wai Bar Gi Station lies right on the boundary of Yangon International Airport, allowing the chance to see planes taking off and landing.
At other stations, vendors board and leave the train, offering their wares as they walk through the carriages. Elsewhere, people dry their clothes beside the track or walk leisurely along the rails.
Phil, a teacher from Britain, said he intended to jump on and off the train at whichever stops looked interesting, adding that the markets appealed to him.
“It looked interesting — see a bit of the city you wouldn’t see just wandering around the middle,” he said.
Asked about the upgrades to the line, Phil said it was impractical to keep the railway as it is just for tourists. “If it helps local people, you can’t really (keep it the same) just for tourists to come and see the old way. You can’t do that.”
Ayumi Kiko, a representative of JICA who is dealing with the upgrade, did not share concerns over Yangon potentially losing one of its prime tourist attractions, saying “I think it’s very interesting still, because . . . you can see people’s lives, people’s living environment from the line, which you cannot see from taking a taxi or a bus.”
She said recently that the upgrade is not aimed at changing the balance between private and public transport.
“We think that this circular line has very big potential for the people’s access to many places, because currently the ratio of using public transport is 80 percent, which is quite good. . . . We don’t want to change that ratio,” she said.
“The Yangon regional government is trying to reorganize the bus transformation, so together with those bus improvements and railways improvements, people can use the public transportation so that the traffic congestion is not going to be worse (than now),” she added.
Yangon certainly suffers from congestion at present, with thousands of imported, used Japanese cars and worse-for-wear buses crowding the streets.
The upgrade plan, funded by a loan of ¥24.8 billion ($212 million) from JICA, will see new, or newer, trains installed on the Yangon Circular Railway, replacing some of the aging Japanese rolling stock currently plying the route.
“Some of the rolling stock is really old, and they also imported some Japanese secondhand rolling stock with air con, so . . . even though it is 30 years old, with air con it is quite nice,” Kiko said, adding that newer trains and better signaling will enable a more frequent service.
Many of the trains still carry the names of the Japanese lines on which they once ran, along with various signs and stickers, while others display the flags of Japan and Myanmar as a mark of the ties between the two nations.
Currently trains run at intervals of between 12 and 45 minutes. From 2020 the intervals should be between 10 and 12 minutes, Kiko said, comparing it to Japanese local train services.
The use of Japanese technology and expertise for the upgrade did not come about by accident. Kiko explained that Myanmar Railways has “been using Japanese signal systems since the 1960s . . . very old fashioned, antique, since their country was closed for a while, so they didn’t have the new technology coming in, so they maintained it very well. They know it lasts more than 50 years, so they respect Japanese technology.”
She also said that the new trains for the line could be supplied by Japan. Although other bidders from elsewhere will be able to recommend their trains, JICA has recommended Japanese carriages, Kiko said.
However, the ongoing upgrades to the line are only part of a much bigger transport plan for the city.
Kiko said JICA submitted a transport master plan in 2014, detailing the future of the city’s public transportation up to 2040. Given that the population of Yangon is set to swell from 5 million to 10 million in that time, a number of options for reducing congestion on the city’s streets were suggested.
“By 2040 we could suggest an elevated railway,” Kiko said. “Also, since the population of Yangon . . . is going to be increased, doubled, in 2040, we may need an underground urban mass transit railway line, so we proposed that in 2014”
“We proposed two railway lines — south to north, up to the airport, and east to west,” she added.
Improvements to the railway between Yangon and Mandalay, in central Myanmar, are also on the cards for JICA. However, the work to the Yangon Circular Line looks set to be the first completed rail project for the Japanese organization.
Mark Smith, who runs train travel advice website The Man in Seat Sixty-One, said interest in Myanmar’s rail network has skyrocketed in recent years.
“I used to get maybe one or two emails about Burma per year, now I get regular feedback every week or two,” he said, referring to Myanmar by the name by which the country was formerly known.
He described the Yangon Circular Line as a “curiosity,” and said Myanmar Railways is probably “the least modernized of all the significant Asian networks, and the track is very bumpy in places — that’s the feedback I usually get.”
Italian tourist Dario, who took a short trip on the Yangon line, described the journey as “definitely cool, it’s like going back to the old times. It’s very nice, something really unique . . . that probably one day will not be here anymore.”
He said he felt the upgrades to the line may take away the charm for tourists, suggesting that “possibly (it) will be nice to keep just a short part like this just for the experience . . . have the efficient (train) for the people and then keep some for the tourists or for the locals as a memorial.”
However, one issue that is not yet clear is the potential for changes to ticket prices as a result of the upgrade. A single ticket for a full circuit currently costs just 200 kyat (15 cents).