Again, Burma was an outstanding success with many new pictures, beautiful trains in an unspoiled countryside and much traditional life around. After my talks in the headquarters at the end of the tour, I’m convinced that our chances for another great tour in December 2018 are very good. At one of our meetings, the railways gave our tour guide a certificate, saying she’s responsible for 83.5% of all steam operations on the state railway since they overhauled the locomotives! I can only pass my thanks to all who’ve joined our tours to Burma, so far, knowing that things might not have worked out as planned. But we’ve always been rewarded with many great sights and fantastic pictures …. much more then we could have hoped for. Good luck with the weather has been another bonus.
For our tour in January 2018, we asked them to change the appearance of the locomotives to fit the paint schemes of the depots at Pyinmana, Mottama and Bago as it was in 2000. This was more difficult than expected. Exactly copying from an original doesn’t seems to be a strength of railway men. I was told in Pyinmana that the rather artistic smokebox paintings were done by someone in the workshop at Insein, in the last years of regular steam. In Insein, they probably had a master craftsman who was able to draw a perfect five-pointed star. After the first attempts, by the railwaymen in Bago, to copy the painting from the original more or less failed, I sent them a YouTube video entitled “Painting and tinkering with Nina for beginners”. However, even this didn’t help. The star, which used to be even on the smokebox and golden with a red outline, was uneven, too small and white. After my intervention, it was still white without outline and irregular. Hence, after I arrived, ahead of the group, I made them buy a brush and paint, I climbed up on to the loco and painted a star as my teachers had taught me in the very first lessons at school. After I had drawn a rough outline on the smokebox door, the local “painter” was able to refine it and fill it in with the gold paint we had bought and add a red outline, so that this smokebox door came very, very close to its original (from YD 692).
The anchor of Mottama was a much more difficult challenge. What they painted was too clumsy, the cross too large, the chain too coarse and, again, the star everything but even. Despite sending a man with a large picture of the original to the depot to supervise the painting job, there were no amendments visible. So again, we purchased paint and brushes. In Mottama, with the help of the original photos, I explained every detail and why I was not happy with what was there on the smokebox door. Half a dozen workers were interested in improving the smokebox painting. They took pictures with their mobile phones and started work as soon as the door had cooled down a bit. In the end, the anchor was much improved and looked quite like the original one. The cross remained a bit too large and the star a bit too small, but that was all bearable. I got the impression that in Burma no-one knows the game “Find seven differences” in two almost identical pictures. This would be a good approach to train your eye and see differences between an original and its copy.
I arrived in Burma two days before the group to fix any small problems, not only the appearance of the smokebox doors. I went around the loco with the crew and showed them what mechanical flaws they should fix before the tour.
This one for instance, the distance between the crosshead and the slide bar:
The best (because the only) tools, Pyinmana depo could offer:
They appeared very interested but, after we had finished, they went not for tools but for a noon nap. I was a little irritated. In the afternoon someone from the headquarters appeared at the depot and asked me to show the mechanical flaws again. This time they filmed everything. And then again nothing happened. Yes, they said, this can’t be done in the depot, the loco will have to go to the workshop at Insein, following our tour. But the things I had shown them could have been solved by an average depot crewman in around two hours. At least this was my opinion. The quite big depot at Pyinmana is not equipped at all. The don’t have a lathe, a water gauge or anyone who could handle the only machine I found; a drilling machine. In the extensive premises of the depot, I found long rows of dumped diesel hydraulic locomotives from the Kunming railway in China and a good number of serviceable and non-serviceable Japanese railcars. In the wagon repair facilities, they repaired wagons and coaches under simplest of conditions, while beside the two track wagon workshop were some interesting old passenger coaches, unfortunately not usable.
With their rattly driving gear, not properly closable cylinder drain cocks, steam leaking from glands and partly worn bearings, the locos moved along within their own cacophony: cling, clang, clong, hiss. But they worked fine, without the slightest problem, even with the further increased train weights. After long negotiations, they allowed us to load three wagons of the stone train. The only point was that we had to purchase the stones. 48 tons of stone, I never had on my list of extras. There were 4 loads of planks, 35 oil tank barrels, a dozen wooden boxes and passengers, of course. 550 USD per wagon to make the train look a bit more authentic.
To get better access to the wagons, we got them to build a ladder for us. The model they produced was so massive that it needed two or three people to bring it into position. It was a unique creation, for much more than the monthly wage of a railway employee … Because of the doubtful state of the wooden ladder up to the northern signal cabin in Bago and the fact that they don’t want to invest any further money in the current signalling infrastructure which is going to be demolished in the near future, they asked us to donate our ladder to them. Which we did, of course.
We achieved many different pictures, compared to the first two tours, plus the standards and the classics, as well.
The use of the diesel hydraulic metre gauge locos, from the Chinese Kunming railway, was only a short intermezzo. We didn’t see a single loco of this class on the line, but long rows of dumped ones in Pyinmana:
Not seen, but also belonging to the depot at Pyinmana and in their documents marked as being dumped, is DD 1113. DD 1130 and 1140 used to belong to Pyinmana as well, but couldn’t been seen and weren’t noted in the depot documents any more.
Besides the Chinese diesel hydraulics of the former class DFH21, the depot has allocated:
DD 518 was transferred to another depot while the large, new diesels of class DF 20xx, which belonged to Pyinmana a couple of years ago, have been transferred to other depots long ago. Known of are the locos DF 2001, 2004, 2006, 2011, 2023 and 2026.
Besides diesel locos, Pyinmana owns a number of Japanese railcars and DMUs, many of them not serviceable.
The large number of rolling stock implies a well equipped and busy workshop. But not so in Pyinmana. A small box column drill was the only piece of working equipment. They don’t have a lathe and not even a water gauge.
The importance of the depot in Mottama dropped close to zero after they inaugurated the bridge over the Thanlwin Myit (Saluen, Salween) River. Despite the new bridge and the larger depot on the southern river bank, Mottama still hosts these locomotives:
In 2016, FarRail Tours made them rebuild the triangle from scratch. Since then, it has been used three times to turn a steam locomotive. Mottama also hosts a crane and a GX, four wheel covered freight wagon. The latter one is on the wish list for overhaul and use for charter trains.
The performance of the state railway continues to decline. On the whole network, they have to carry only around 30 freight trains per day. The modal split regarding passenger transport will go below 10% in the near future. A prognosis of the Asian Development Bank forecasts just 2% of the total passenger transport in the country by 2030, unless the railway invests massively and modernises its system and rolling stock. In the headquarters of the state railway, Myanma Railway, they know all this. However, the limited budget doesn’t allow big leaps forward. Currently, 50% of the state subsidy goes on operating costs and the rest goes for infrastructure and rolling stock.
The economy of the country is growing rapidly. For wages, the railway is able to offer, around 100 Dollars per month for an average railway employee and 300 to 350 Dollars for high ranked board members and general managers. No-one with a decent education wants to work for them. Nowadays, travellers are willing to pay double the train price for a bus ride from Yangon to Mandalay. Despite this 100% difference in prices, the railway is rapidly losing passengers. If you travelled down the, so called, motorway you know that this is a bumpy experience. However, by bus you can cover the distance in eight to ten hours, while the railway needs 14 to 15 hours if it isn’t delayed. And no matter how bad the motorway is, the railway is worse. After the journey you need a rest to recover. Right up to the top management of the railway, they tell each other jokes about the track condition. They know the reality perfectly well. When you also take into account that the suspension and silencers in many coaches are not working, the experience on the railway can only be described as impressive. I never understood the physical basics of why they don’t derail more frequently. I’ve never actually seen a derailment on the state railway which doesn’t mean there are none. According to their own statistics, they have quite a lot of derailments.
Road construction goes on. More and more filling stations are to be built for the rapidly growing road traffic. The quality of the roads is still awful in most parts of the country, but sufficient to allow the people to flee in flocks from the railways. Boat transport and, especially, air transport for those who can afford it, does the rest.
With this background, they’ve started to rebuild the main line to Mandalay. Between Bago and Mottama, they’ve worked through some parts of the line. In January 2018, they rebuilt the section Taungzun Hninpale. On this line, so far, there’s only one station been completely rebuilt, Mokpalin. All the other stations are sill untouched.
In 2017, they completely rebuilt a 22km long test section between Bago and Yangon. They wanted to test their working system of how to rebuild the line “under the rolling wheel” i.e. without interrupting the traffic. In 2018, they want to start the complete rebuild of the main line. Their plan to start in June 2018 is not realistic. In the headquarters, they told me about a minor delay. When I asked if they could clarify “minor”, they said that they expect the start of works to be in November or December 2018. All stations will be untouched until 2019, the line reconstruction has priority. Due to the “slim” budget available, they can’t do the whole line. The plan for the next few years is to overhaul the section between Yangon and Taungoo only. From our point of view, the most interesting part for steam charters, unfortunately.
They’ve created three sections which they want to start simultaneously:
First contract section planned start of construction July 2018
Second contract section planned start of construction July 2019
Third contract section planned start of construction: after they finished the second contract section
The huge pile of ballast in Payagyi has grown further. Now, sand sacks prevent it from spreading all over the station tracks.
The foreseeable and confirmed delay of the construction work is a good start for our planned tour in December 2018. I hope the works will not interfere with our tour.
The line to Mottama will not be affected by its renewal. The brand new ballast from 2016, on a section near Mayagon, had disappeared completely under a layer of lush green by January 2018. It took us some time to clear this section to be able to take a picture with the two shiny pagodas. On the main line it might be different because they want to run at 100km/h there and need to keep the vegetation down all the time.
At one of the meetings in the headquarters, we also spoke about a nice little branch line which we would love to add to our programme. The first offer to rebuild the line was 18,000 US-Dollars but, soon after, the amount doubled to $36,000. After nine years of investment, I hesitate to add another 36 to the overall bill because I’m not sure I’ll be able to recover it ever. On the other hand, after nine years of negotiations, I see a good chance that there will be an affordable solution. On the recently overhauled section, Taunzun Hninpale, they replaced a lot of sleepers which are still in good shape. These could be used for a branch line like the one we’re talking about. Maybe … let’s put it this way ... the office in which the negotiations took place had no air-conditioning. The manager and his staff were not happy about it. On the same day we left the office, we delivered a device which makes it much cooler in the office. We have to to find the best solutions and make the right decisions!
Nowadays, plastic rubbish pollutes the whole country. You can still find meals served on big leaves, but they are massively outnumbered by the, so called, modern stuff. Even at the tourist hot spots on Lake Inle you can now find styrofoam (foamed polystyrene) packages, from “very healthy” instant food, swimming on the lake. Almost all embankments of the railway are dotted with styrofoam and other plastics. In ten years this rubbish will be still there, plus the rubbish from another ten years of pollution. Why does no-one see the problem? Why does no-one do anything about it? I had the opportunity to talk to the environment official of the fourth largest city in Burma. He has a 14 hour office day, and this six, or sometimes even seven, days a week. His salary at about 3,000 US-Dollars, is at the absolute top end in the country, plus a company car. However, he doesn’t see his family very often, and he has no life. Hence, he can’t start any new project. His time is fully occupied. That’s why some important projects and developments haven’t started yet. After a long slumber, Myanmar is in a phase of rapid economic growth. It’s normal that not everything will work smoothly from the start. Another factor shouldn’t be underestimated. Don’t think the influence of the military sector is broken or even weakened. If you thing Aung San Suu Kyi could do what she thinks would be right, you’re probably missing the view behind the façade of the distribution of power within the country.
Despite all the odds, Burma is a country with lovely and friendly people. All those who think after reading the western mass media that they should think twice about Burma, first concentrate on changing your domestic politics, with respect to the environment and avoiding global warming. Remember, not long ago, many of the now prosperous western democracies were causing unbelievable evils. On the way to the current, imperfect democracy, they left millions of dead people behind. Considering this, Myanmar is almost a paradigm of peaceful change from a kind of dictatorship to a democracy.
More (different) pictures can found in the German trip report.