JICA proposes underground railway

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) will invest US$250 million to upgrade Yangon’s circular railway and has also proposed building two underground railway lines, as well as a light rapid transit system to improve the flow of traffic around the city.

Such large-scale infrastructure investment is necessary, as Yangon’s population is projected to double from 5.1 million to 10 million by 2040 – or 1.5 million more people than are currently living in Bangkok, said Shigehiko Sugita, deputy director of JICA’s Southeast Asia and Pacific Department, to The Myanmar Times.

Unless drastic action is taken to upgrade the city’s creaking infrastructure, in five years’ time residents are likely to look back with nostalgia on the traffic jams of today, according to JICA research, which forecasts that vehicle use in Yangon could rise 22-fold over the next 25 years.

“Bangkok didn’t develop proper urban transport which is why it is so congested,” said Mr Sugita. “The good news is that Yangon – like London or Tokyo or Moscow – already has a circle line. This shows potential.”

On July 4, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to modernise Yangon’s 46-kilometre (28-mile) circular railway and committed to a $250 million soft loan. The Japanese government, through JICA, will upgrade the infrastructure, including new trains and signalling, said Mr Sugita. Myanma Railways will be responsible for upgrading the track and tendering the existing 38 stations for redevelopment.

In the longer-term, however, Yangon faces a much bigger problem. Even if the circular railway is upgraded to an international standard with fast and frequent trains, it will not be able to support a population of more than 10 million, said Mr Sugita.

Beyond this, there are three main options – Light Rapid Transport (LRT) such as a tram or a monorail, Metro Rapid Transport (MRT) and Bus Rapid Transport (BRT), he said.

“In our Yangon comprehensive masterplan we have proposed all three, but we cannot do all of them at once. BRT is the easiest to start with as you can just use the existing route.”

In May, the government announced a modern bus system called “BRT Lite” based on a 2013 plan by JICA, which will be funded through a public-private partnership. New bus lanes will be laid out and new buses imported.

Myanma Railways believes the city needs another railway line, said Mr Sugita, adding that the authority had the idea of installing a monorail from the north to the south of the city, along the western bank of Inya Lake.

JICA is also supporting a new tram line from Kyeemindaing to Strand Hotel. “After this pilot project we will extend the line, and we are considering perhaps building a small circular tram line. LRT is easier and cheaper than MRT but it will also not be sufficient to support the entire population,” said Mr Sugita.

It costs roughly three times more to build an underground railway than to build a monorail, he said, but in the longer term an MRT would yield much better results. “They built an LRT in Manila and it’s very crowded. It’s worse than Japan. So in Yangon we are also pushing for an MRT – it’s much stronger,” he said.

“We would like to build two metro lines – one from the north to the south of Yangon and another from east to west, as well as a line to Dala and to Thilawa,” he added.

“JICA may consider funding an MRT – the master plan is now under discussion,” he said, adding that Korea and China are also interested and that both countries have already put forward proposals to the government.

In the meantime, work on the circle line upgrade will begin in 2016, following a year of planning, and the entire project is due for completion in 2020, said Mr Sugita.

The first stage of the upgrade will cover the track running through the most densely populated part of the city, from Danyingone in western Yangon to the central railway station downtown. JICA will also offer technical assistance for an extension of the circular railway which will run to the Thilawa special economic zone to the southeast of Yangon.

“Our target is for air conditioned trains to run every 10 minutes, at an average speed of 30 kilometres [19 miles] per hour,” he said – the same average speed as trains in Tokyo. Trains will be able to run up to a maximum of 80km per hour. Currently in Yangon, rickety trains without air conditioning or cushioned seats run every 10 to 40 minutes, at an average speed of 15km.

Initially JICA considered an elevated railway. “But we failed, as the centre of Yangon is on a hill and the soil is very weak. We would have had to dig 40 to 50 metres into the ground every 100m to support the track, which would have been too expensive,” said Mr Sugita.

For the circular railway upgrade, too, there are several challenges to overcome. For example, residents living along the side of the tracks have been asked to make way. “There are some houses and vegetable plantations very close to the track. The residents won’t have to move to a new location, but we have asked them to move back,” he said.

However, unlike in cities such as Manila and Phnom Penh, because the railway tracks are already in place relatively few people will need to move, he said. “Still, we have discussed the social considerations with Myanma Railways.”

Myanma Railways initially wanted the trains to be electrified but, while this is the long-term plan, the trains will initially run on diesel. “Electrification is the future goal, but if we did this now and there were still houses without power there would be some conflict, so Myanma Railways was kind enough to give up the idea,” said Mr Sugita.

Source: Myanmar Times

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