Car-choked Yangon aims to ride the rails to transport revolution

03 March 2015
Car-choked Yangon aims to ride the rails to transport revolution
A long way to travel before Yangon's transport infrastructure gets a full upgrade. Photo: Hein Htet/Mizzima

Trains chug around Yangon's circular railway at a stately pace barely faster than a brisk walk, but this creaking relic of colonial times is at the heart of plans for a public transport revolution in the traffic-choked metropolis.
Rush hour spills a throng of passengers towards Ma Kyi Kyi Win's cigarette stand at a downtown station, and the tobacconist says she has seen more commuters using the trains since changes to the city's long-neglected network were introduced.
"Only poor people used to use the train because the tickets were very cheap," she told AFP, sprinkling rows of green leaves with tobacco and betel nuts -- a mild chewable narcotic -- and folding them into bite-sized parcels for sale at San San Aye station.
But upgrades including higher-priced air-conditioned carriages have drawn wealthier customers aboard, delighting Ma Kyi Kyi Win who says the average spend on her betel has soared from K50 per person [five US cents] to K200.
Built under British colonial rule, the railway winds a 50-kilometre [30-mile] loop around Yangon, ferrying some 100,000 people a day from sleepy rural suburbs into the heart of Myanmar's main city.
Its ponderous pace - just 15 kilometres an hour - has for years made the link the last resort of those too poor to afford a car or wearied by the city's sweaty and dangerously speedy buses.
But moves to revive the service have seen travellers return to rail.
"I always feared for my life on the bus and the traffic was very bad," said U Tin Tin Win, who switched to commuting by train two years ago, when rail authorities began their upgrades.
The new air-conditioned carriages - plastered with advertisements for Red Bull and Myanmar Beer - were added shortly before the launch of a new Yangon tram that now trundles along the city’s riverfront road.
They are all part of a plan to entice people off the roads, which have been choked by the influx of cars that accompanied the country's opening to the world after decades of military rule.
And the gridlock looks set to get worse.
Japan International Cooperation Agency, working with Myanmar on several nationwide transport projects, warns "Yangon's roads will be paralysed" without urgent improvements to infrastructure.
It predicts the city's population will double to around 10 million in the next 20 years, while the number of cars clogging Yangon's pot-holed roads will quadruple to around one million.
"It is the right time to start thinking about the future transportation system," JICA’s Myanmar head Mr Tanaka Masahiko told AFP.
He says developing the country's public transport system, particularly rail, lies at the heart of solving its infrastructure woes and in turn drawing foreign investors.
Yangon officials appear to be taking the advice on board, saying they plan to replace more of the city's rusting old trains and computerise control and safety mechanisms.
"We are particularly focused on getting trains to be punctual, cheap, and easy for passengers to travel into the city," said U Htun Aung Thin of the rail ministry.
But luring people off the roads is still a major challenge -- only one percent of Yangon journeys were made by rail in 2013. Some 50 percent were on buses and around eight percent each in taxis and private cars or vans.
Public transport, like other services including health and education, was chronically neglected under Myanmar's military rulers -- and the bus network is run by private firms, creating a complex array of overlapping services.
Megan Quirk, an urban planner who has worked with Yangon authorities, said road congestion could be eased with small changes such as networked traffic lights to replace police on walkie talkies -- and public education campaigns.
For the circular railway to reach its full potential it would need to be better integrated with plans for the city’s booming property development allowing it to connect densely-populated neighbourhoods, she told AFP.
But recent proposals such as lifting a junta-era ban on motorbikes in Yangon would likely make things worse by tempting people off buses, rather than persuading car drivers to take to two wheels.
Meanwhile large projects -- like a proposed subway system -- would be disruptive to implement.
"Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better," Ms Quirk said.
Myanmar is eager to avoid the perennial traffic jams that plague other Southeast Asian cities.
But the plans to upgrade its transport network are expensive - JICA estimates countrywide improvements would cost around $20 billion to 2030.
The task will also stretch Yangon's authorities, closeted from modern technologies during the country's isolation and still often working without office computers.
For vendors like Ma Kyi Kyi Win, a busier station means more business and a safer neighbourhood - and she's positive about the changes.
"I think things will be even better in the future," she said.