Published in The Myanmar Times on 25 March 2013

A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.                       – Mayor of Bogota, September 2012

Passengers waiting for a circle line train to arrive. PHOTO Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times

Passengers waiting for a circle line train to arrive. PHOTO Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times

The hands of the clock at Yangon Central Railway Station show the time as 11:50 – but it’s 10:45am and the Yangon circle line is ready for departure. A lone chicken pecks at the ground skittishly while a dog with a black tumour does his best to avoid the small flurry of passengers. Although 20 of the station’s 427 staff are employed to keep the station clean, betel stains abound and several of the rubbish bins are almost overflowing. Weary families sleep on the platform beside oversized plastic bags of belongings.

For a city with an estimated population of six million and increasingly congested roads, the intra-city railway line has an unfortunate lack of hustle and bustle. This is primarily due to the fact that the train travels at about 17 kilometres an hour and therefore takes nearly three hours to complete the 45.9 kilometre route, which encompasses 39 stations.

A working paper published in March 2012 by the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo estimates that 130,000 passengers take the circle line each day. The Yangon Circular Railway Development Project, as the paper is titled, describes the Yangon Circle Line as suffering “from poor quality, low speed, and infrequent service. Thus, it is relatively underused as a resource.”

Indeed: the report goes on to state that just 2 pc of Yangon’s population rely on trains as a form of public transport each day, whereas 3.14 million passengers take the bus, representing the vast majority of the 4.5 million city dwellers who use public transport.

Because the train loop doesn’t extend to Yangon’s main commercial district, “commuters are forced to take buses, taxis, or rickshaws in the commercial district, which contributes to severe congestion problems,” states the report.

A German engineer called Dieter Hettler told The Myanmar Times via email that: “In February 1964 a batch of 28 diesel-hydraulic locomotives…arrived in Yangon from Essen, Germany, which I had the pleasure to put into use on circular trains starting from Insein.”

Mr Hettler taught the steam-locomotive drivers how to drive the diesel trains. He wrote that, “Later on… less powerful diesel locos were put into service on the circle line… That is still the situation today.”

In addition to the worn out carriages, the daily schedule of 10 circle line trains (the last of which leaves at 2:25pm) “is not preferable for the passengers, as trains often run not as scheduled. The uncertain schedule refrains potential passengers from using railways and encourages them to use less-uncertain modes such as bus, private car, or taxi.”

Although the station manager, U Aung Than Kyaw told The Myanmar Times that 90pc of outbound trains leave on time, 67-year-old U Thant Zin, who has run a betel shop at Dadarkalay Station station since 1986, doesn’t agree.

He said that trains are usually late and “it gets worse on weekends – maybe because there are fewer passengers and the staff don’t care.”

Last year U Thant Zin opened a second-hand electronics shop next to the betel shop, but said that business is slow and was unwilling to divulge his profits.

He’s noticed a “huge decline in passenger numbers – it’s a quarter of what it was in 1986.”

U Thant Zin believes one cause could be the increase in ticket prices – “people now prefer to travel in buses because the price isn’t much different,” he said.

However Yangon’s palpably overcrowded buses account for just 6pc of the total number of vehicles on the road, according to the university’s data from 2008. This means that a huge number of taxis and private cars dominate, with obvious consequences for air quality as well as economic impacts, such as slowing the delivery of goods and services and increasing the length of time commuters spend in traffic each day.

According to the academic L. Santucci, even a city such as Bangkok, which has a popular skytrain and metro, lost 6pc of its gross domestic product due to traffic congestion in 2011.

Although the need for an upgrade is apparent, the report states that the infrastructure cannot support a faster or more frequent train service unless the lightweight railway foundations and tracks are completely overhauled.

A copy of the Yangon circle line map, which a volunteer at Yangon Central Station  gave me.

A copy of the Yangon circle line map, which a volunteer at Yangon Central Station gave me.

For decades, the circle line has been used almost exclusively by tourists and low income Yangonites, who put up with the trains’ inconveniences because it is a K100 cheaper alternative to a bus ticket. Up until November 2011, the price of a train ticket was just K10, after which it rose to K100 for a return journey.

Thirty-three-year-old Lei Lei San and her eight female friends from Mayangyone were traveling to a donation ceremony in Kyimindaing. She said, “I don’t ride the train regularly but I’m taking it today because bus fares are expensive.”

A man sitting in another carriage, who has been buying and sells folding lounges for the past two years, agreed, saying, “Buses are a bit expensive.”

The train is a more convenient option for people transporting wholesale goods – such as vendors from the large fruit and vegetable market near Botataung station. According to the station master, oversized goods are prohibited from being brought on the train during the morning rush-hour.

The Yangon circle line is itself a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. A man with a deafening voice sells cosmetics and perfumes, while an eccentric elderly person hands out free samples of bitter tasting digestive medicine. I buy a pack for K500.

A 65-year-old blind banjo player carrying a tin filled with mostly K50 notes told The Myanmar Times, “I go from carriage to carriage. I can’t rely on my children to support me, so this is my profession.”

A woman carrying a basket of peanuts on her head said, “I’m on the train every day and I never buy a ticket. If the conductor catches me, I have to pay a K1000 fine.”

The good news is that plans to modernise the circle line are in the pipeline – but the sad news is that this will take at least six years from now to complete.

Maki Morikawa, Project Formulation Advisor for the Infrastructure Sector at Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), told The Myanmar Times that a master plan for the development of greater Yangon was started in December last year and will be published in December 2013. JICA is collaborating with Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) to undertake the survey, which he described as “wide-ranging.”

“It includes issues such as water supply as well as urban transport,” Mr Morikawa said.

In May, JICA and YCDC will hold a seminar in Yangon to explain the survey and a question and answer session open to the public will take place.

The Yangon circle line train. PHOTO Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times

The Yangon circle line train. PHOTO Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times

Mr Morikawa explained that once the findings of the master plan are known, the government will set its priorities.

If upgrading the circle line makes the cut, the project will take five years to complete, Mr Morikawa said.

“For example, before starting the project, the government will need to put out a tender for the designer. This process takes time.”

JICA’s role in a possible upgrade “depends on [the outcome of] our discussions with the government. Of course we can provide finance and the government will prepare a budget,” he said.

When asked about whether an improved railway system would mean a rise in ticket prices, Mr Morikawa said, “We ask the same question ourselves, because the [circle line’s] passengers are from low income backgrounds. We need to discuss this in detail because a railway system is an important form of transport for everyone.”

Some may wonder why JICA didn’t initiate such plans sooner. As Mr Morikawa explained, JICA’s operations were relatively small between 1988 and 2003 and it wasn’t until 2011 that it began to expand its presence in Myanmar after a statement on cooperation was jointly issued by the governments of Japan and Myanmar.

Mr Morikawa said, “It’s important to see transport as a network – but so far the government hasn’t developed a concrete plan or coordination. It’s a big investment, so it’s a big decision.”

The report (which has no connection to JICA and YCDC’s plans) estimates that upgrading the railway will cost US$10 million per kilometre, amounting to a total cost of more than $400 million.

It states, “construction costs aside, the project can become profitable in about 15 years’ time” and calculates that the amount of money saved by having an efficient train line (which thereby reduces commuting times) and “increased consumer surplus from the reduction in generalised costs… are calculated to be approximately… $39.1 million a year.”

The study describes Yangon’s bus system as suffering from “insufficient management of the proliferation of routes, the poor quality of vehicles, inadequate bus networks, and lack of financial support.” This causes “on-the-road competition and threatens the safety of the public.”

Although upgrading the circle line would consume a vast amount of money, the report argues that “a frequent and reliable railway system produces more overall benefits than a bus system because railway development can attract high levels of investment from the private sector and promote real estate development around the station, which typically does not happen in the case of a bus system… Such incentives can enable the local government to form public private partnerships (PPPs), such that government spending on railway improvement can be minimised.”

Although Yangon’s infrastructure is comparatively weak – a factor that will add to the overall cost of the project: “on the positive side, the land for the Yangon circular railway is ready and no resettlement of inhabitants is required.”

It seems inevitable that Yangonites will one day take a metro for granted, and that the entire lap will take around 35 minutes. The real question is when.