Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Circle Line, Yangon

In March 2008, I made my first visit to Myanmar (formerly Burma). This was before the tragedy of Cyclone Nargis, which has brought such devastation to an already-poor population and exposed the shortcomings of the present military regime to wider scrutiny.

The British were largely responsible for establishing the infrastructure in Burma and an extensive metre-gauge railway was established. There is an excellent short description of the railways in steam days at Mike's Steam Pages.

The then capital Rangoon (now called Yangon and no longer the administrative capital) was provided with a double-track suburban line configured as a circle and this still provides an important transport link. I made a clockwise tour of the Circle Line during my trip and took a number of pictures.

My journey started (and finished) at the main station in the city, shown above. In steam days, this station was known as Phayre Street and there's a picture on Mike's Steam Pages taken from more or less the same viewpoint as above. With the sun shining on the modern gilded towers behind the long-distance platform, my picture makes the station look quite attractive, but I'm afraid the suburban platforms are definitely shabby.

The diesel locomotives are rather 'battered'. The coaching stock on the Circle Line Trains is quite basic (windows are simply unglazed frames and there are no doors) but I didn't discover another shortcoming until later. At each of the frequent stops, the rear coach in which I was riding kept oscillating back and forth on the slack in the 'chopper' couplings. I couldn't understand why the driver didn't lightly hold the brake on the train for the safety of people getting on and off. Eventually, I found the answer. Although the coaches were originally vacuum-fitted (as evidenced by the partial rigging and the steel pipework remaining), vacuum hoses, vacuum cylinders, most of the rigging and the brakeblocks had been removed. The train was unbraked, relying upon the locomotive brake!

Whilst the track isn't too bad near the main station with a fair amount of concrete sleepers and modern rail fastenings, it deteriorates further out. Here, rails are frequently spiked to elderly wooden sleepers which are quite widely spaced and with indifferent ballasting. Rail gaps are very variable (sometimes with a short piece of rail plugging the gap) and with frequent missing fishbolts, as my photographs show.

I'm afraid these standards are typical of the infrastructure in Myanmar, which has suffered from years of neglect.

Signalling appears somewhat better - colour light with point machines, although it's quite possible that, given an opportunity to look inside some of the sturdy signalling location cases, I'd have been disappointed. I did pass one station with a manual signal box and rod-operated points (using steel tubes for rodding, similar to the Great Western). Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get any photographs.

For a non-railway description of my visit to Yangon, click here.