As Changes Come to Myanmar, Train Upgrade Is Just the Ticket

The Yangon Circular Line doesn’t get much love. Its aging trains circumscribing Myanmar’s largest city meander through 39 stations at an average speed of 10 miles an hour. It takes over three hours to complete the route, monsoon rains permitting.

But now this forgotten railway is finally gaining some attention as a way to beat something nearly as bad—the city’s traffic-choked roads.

“The worse it gets on the streets, the more passengers for us,” said Kyi Win, stationmaster at the British-built Yangon Central Station, as a creaking ceiling fan slowly pushed the humid air around his office.

A deluge of cars has taken to the streets in Yangon since the military-run backwater began opening up to the rest of the world, culminating in a decisive win for former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi in this month’s elections. Yangon City Development Committee estimated that by mid-2014 there were 600,000 vehicles on the city’s streets, twice the number the year before. It isn’t unusual to spot a smattering of Ferraris, Hummers and Porsches among them.

The vast majority of cars and buses are right-hand drive models imported from the used car markets in Japan and Thailand. This makes it hard to see what’s going on when driven on the right-hand side of the road, as is the custom in Myanmar. The subsequent accidents clog up traffic even more. Simple journeys which used to take 20 minutes or so often take more than an hour.

“The traffic, is, how you say? It sucks?” said cabby Win Myint. “There have been positive changes in Myanmar. The traffic isn’t one of them.”

Hence the hopes for the Yangon Circular Line, which was built by the British in the 1950s and carries around 75,000 to 130,000 people a day, a fraction of the three million who are estimated to take the bus.

The Japanese government’s overseas aid department has singled out upgrading the line as a way to get Yangon moving again. It recently produced a digital animation depicting gleaming stations and the passengers politely standing in line while Yangon’s chaotic skyline of temples and crumbling buildings was transformed into a series of futuristic glass and concrete blocks.

The reality is a little more modest.

Passengers can now keep track of the trains’ comings and goings on a digital display screen. Televisions bolted to the ceiling of the train station broadcast programs from the country’s new cable television service. Mr. Kyi Win, the station master, has installed several new power outlets so passengers can charge their mobile phones while waiting for their ride.

There are also now six air-conditioned trains acquired from Japan, each with six cream and orange-colored carriages.

Mr. Kyi Win, 54 years old, says these are a hit with office workers traveling in from the suburbs and with students, some of whom take selfies with each other luxuriating below the conspicuous “no kissing” signs—a big change in a country where, until a few years ago, mobile phone SIM cards could cost up to $2,000, far beyond the financial reach of most people.

“This is so cool. It must be like this in Korea,” said Aung Thi Win, 23, who was traveling downtown with her friends on a recent rainy afternoon.

Still, there is a long way to go before the Yangon Circular Line will be challenging the Tokyo Metro or even the New York City Subway, and the ride itself provides an idea of how the city is changing—and how it is not.

Rumbling past construction sites, passengers can catch glimpses of workers using their breaks to play pickup games of chin lone, which is like volleyball except the ball is played with the feet. Workshops slide into view. In one neighborhood the clang of sheet metal being banged into the shape of spires for Buddhist shrines bounces off nearby buildings and walls.

At many stations, passengers simply walk across the tracks to get to the opposite platform or buy herbal medicines or local snacks such as sunflower seeds. Often local residents view the train line as a convenient short cut to get to their neighbors’ homes.

Near Ywama station, Win Tun, 48, said he often takes his golden retriever, Princess, for walks along the tracks. “It’s usually a quiet place,” he said, occasionally looking over his shoulder to see if a train is slowly making its way down the line. “There’s plenty of time to get out of the way,” he said.

Railway officials said six people have been killed by trains on the Circular Line so far this year. Nine lost their lives last year.

Other stations have become impromptu markets, dotted with vendors swatting away flies from fish or cuts of pork.

Yet some traders say the Yangon Circular Line’s upgrade is turning into a mixed blessing. Prices for newer trains are a flat rate of 300 kyats, or 24 cents, substantially more than the 50 kyats to 100 kyats people pay for traveling just a few stops on the older carriages and a considerable sum in a country where the average annual income is still around $1,000 a year.

“Yes, there are more passengers,” said Thet Mon, who sells a noodle dish called moh-ti at Pagoda Road station. “But if they are riding the air-conditioned trains, they might not have enough money left over to buy any noodles.”

Then there is the monsoon. Mr. Kyi Win said that when the seasonal rains are especially heavy, they can cause some the line’s switching systems to fail, backing up the trains for hours. “We have been upgrading the equipment, but if it gets very wet, we’ve got big trouble,” he said, peering through a window.

There are enough glimpses of the gridlocked streets along the way, however, to make it all seem worthwhile, at least to some passengers.

“It would be better if it went a little faster,” said Kyaw Tun, 36, jabbing his fingers at the screen of his mobile phone as the track below crept by through a rusting a hole in the floor. “But these days it’s better than taking the bus.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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