Japanese investment set to change the face of train travel in Yangon

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People cross the railway near Yangon Central Railway Station in Yangon on 19 November, 2016. Photo: Phoe Khwar

Tourists visiting Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, could be set to lose one of the star attractions of the former capital, as Japan invests in upgrading the railway which encircles the city.
While the responsibility for upgrading the 46 kilometers of track which makes up the Yangon Circular Railway rests with Myanma Railways, the cost of new signaling and trains for the line is being met by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which is aiming to have everything up and running by 2020.
While this may be good news for commuters — currently trains take around three hours to complete a circuit, while the new system will take less than two — tourists may not welcome the change as much, with many using the line as a way of experiencing rail travel in a less-developed setting, and seeing a cross section of life in the city’s urban and rural areas at a leisurely pace.
The route passes through 38 mostly ramshackle stations, beginning from Yangon Central station on the northern edge of the city’s downtown area.
Speaking to Kyodo News at Yangon Central, American tourist Cari said she had opted to ride the train to relax and make the best of a rainy day.
“My plan is just to do something that’s a little bit laid back and to be able to see a lot of different parts of Yangon culture,” she said.
And culture is in abundance on the Yangon Circular Railway. Da Nyin Gone station provides a market selling fresh fruit and vegetables beside the railway, while Wai Bar Gi station lies right on the boundary of Yangon International Airport, allowing the chance to see planes taking off and landing.
At other stations, vendors board and leave the train, offering their wares along the carriage, while elsewhere people dry their clothes beside the track, or walk leisurely along the rails.
Phil, a teacher from Britain, said he intended to jump on and off the train at whichever stops looked interesting, adding that the markets appealed to him.
“It looked interesting, see a bit of the city you wouldn’t see just wandering around the middle,” he said.
Asked about the upgrades to the line, Phil said it was impractical to keep the railway as it is just for tourists. “If it helps local people, you can’t really (keep it the same) just for tourists to come and see the old way. You can’t do that.”
Ayumi Kiko, a representative of JICA who is dealing with the upgrade, did not share concerns over Yangon potentially losing one of its prime tourist attractions, saying “I think it’s very interesting still, because…you can see people’s lives, people’s living environment from the line, which you cannot see from taking a taxi or a bus.”
She told Kyodo News recently that the upgrade is not aimed at changing the balance between private and public transport.
“We think that this circular line has very big potential for the people’s access to many places, because currently the ratio of using public transport is 80 percent, which is quite good…we don’t want to change that ratio,” she said.
“The Yangon regional government is trying to reorganize the bus transformation, so together with those bus improvements and railways improvements, people can use the public transportation so that the traffic congestion is not going to be worse (than now),” she added.—Kyodo News

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