Riding on Myanmar’s antiquated railway network is not an experience for the impatient or infirm. American travel writer Paul Theroux, in The Great Railway Bazaar, quotes a policeman on the Yangon-Mandalay line as it breaks down for the fourth time.
“It is a slow train,” he says. “Dirty and old – old coaches, old engines.”
Not much has changed since the book was written 40 years ago. The 622-kilometre (386-mile) journey takes 15 hours to complete, according to the schedule – in reality it can take longer – and the trains and tracks have seen little repair over recent years.
But with help from Japan, several major projects are under way to upgrade and modernise the line.
On May 15, Mitsubishi Corporation and Hitachi Ltd signed a 2.4 billion yen (US$20 million) contract with state-owned Myanma Railways to supply and install railway signaling systems.
The contract will be covered by grant aid from the Japan International Cooperating Agency (JICA), and completion of the project is scheduled for June 2017.
New signalling technology to be installed includes a train monitoring system, an electric interlocking system to control turnout machines and signal lamps, and a level crossing system. These will be installed along a 140km stretch of track between Yangon Central Station and Pyuntasa Station, in Bago Region.
“Given the ageing of existing railway infrastructure in Myanmar, improvement of the quality and safety of railway services has become an urgent issue,” said a joint statement issued by the two firms.
The level crossing system will be built first, according to a Mitsubishi spokesperson, and is due for completion around the end of October 2015.
“The most important item to be upgraded is the train monitoring system which enables the control center to grasp the position of running trains,” she said. With this project as a first step, Mitsubishi Corp and Hitachi will continue to pursue opportunities for involvement in future railway infrastructure projects in Myanmar.”
In September 2014, JICA announced that it had signed a Japanese ODA Loan Agreement with the Myanmar government, to provide up to 63.166 billion yen for four projects across various sectors.
Part of this was committed to the modernisation of “Myanmar’s most important railway lines”, with the Yangon-Mandalay line identified as “the most important trunk line”.
JICA said last September that due to the country’s ageing network, railway accidents along the line occur around 100 times a year. In light of this, phase one of the Yangon-Mandalay Improvement Project will modernise old equipment and facilities to provide a safer, faster service.
In Yangon, JICA also has plans to work with Myanma Railways to upgrade the city’s circular railway line. Phase one will cover around half of the railway track, from Dayin Gone station in northwest Yangon, through southern Yangon, to Pazundaung station in the southeast.
The spokesperson for Mitsubishi Corp said that the company has plans to co-work with Hitachi on Yangon’s circular railway upgrade, though added that this has not yet been 100pc confirmed. Last year the deputy minister for transport U Myint Thein told the Amyotha Hluttaw that JICA and Myanma Railways would build a high-speed train between Yangon and Mandalay. The project is due to begin in 2015, and will take eight years. Once complete, a 100km-an-hour service will run between the two cities.
Japan is not the only country interested in upgrading Myanmar’s railways. China has long had ambitions to link a deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State with Muse on the Myanmar-China border. The line would pass through Ann, Minbu, Magwe, Mandalay and Lashio. However, the scheme was put on hold last year due to public opposition.
Source: Myanmar Times