YANGON (AFP) – Trains chug around Yangon’s circular railway at a stately pace barely faster than a brisk walk, but this creaking relic of colonial times is at the heart of plans for a public transport revolution in the traffic-choked metropolis.
Rush hour spills a throng of passengers towards Kyi Kyi Win’s cigarette stand at a downtown station, and the tobacconist says she has seen more commuters using the trains since changes to the city’s long-neglected network were introduced.
“Only poor people used to use the train because the tickets were very cheap,” she told AFP, sprinkling rows of green leaves with tobacco and betel nuts — a mild chewable narcotic — and folding them into bite-sized parcels for sale at San San Aye station.
But upgrades including higher-priced air-conditioned carriages have drawn wealthier customers aboard, delighting Kyi Kyi Win who says the average spend on her betel has soared from 50 kyats per person (five US cents) to 200 kyats.
Built under British colonial rule, the railway winds a 50-kilometre (30-mile) loop around Yangon, ferrying some 100,000 people a day from sleepy rural suburbs into the heart of Myanmar’s main city.
Its ponderous pace — just 15 km/hour — has for years made the link the last resort of those too poor to afford a car or wearied by the city’s sweaty and dangerously speedy buses.
But moves to revive the service have seen travellers return to rail.
“I always feared for my life on the bus and the traffic was very bad,” said Tin Tin Win, who switched to commuting by train two years ago, when rail authorities began their upgrades.