... and yes, we did different pictures!
Following the successful tour in January 2017, you might assume that they would know exactly what we wanted. To make sure it would work, we explained again and again what we wanted and how we wanted it. The day before the tour started they delivered the required wagons to Bago and guess what: apart from the three passenger coaches in the traditional grey/black livery, they delivered all the other rolling stock in modern livery. After a short discussion with the board, we found out that the coaches we asked them to paint in traditional colours for the January 2017 tour, had just been repainted back to the current scheme! So we asked them if we could paint two of the wagons ourselves. They said the time wouldn’t be sufficient but agreed, if we would pay a fee! We agreed and started painting the wagons with four people who had arrived earlier than the rest of the group. Minutes after we had started, some railwaymen from the wagon repair shop came and took over. As there were no ladders, we used seats to reach the upper part of the wagon. For the second wagon they made it easier to reach the top: they put it on jacks, removed the bogies, and then put the jacks to the lowest position. In the end they found a bamboo ladder as well. After two hours both of the chosen vehicles looked much better (you can find pictures from the paiting session in the German trip report).
negotiations in the depot of Bago
Reaching the depot, I heard someone continuously calling “hey hey hey” with about ten seconds between each yell. It went on and on, and as I approached the diesel fuelling station, I saw three men sitting on an oil tank which was mounted on a flat wagon, handling oily sacks, and another man standing on the flat wagon, emptying these oily sacks into an open barrel. Coming closer I saw an oil pump on a wooden seat, with a small shed, leading from an oil tank wagon on the other track via the pump to the three men on the oil tank, on the flat wagon. A thin cable went from the oil tank to a place in the shade some 30 metres away. There sat another man, also on a wooden chair, with a socket in his left hand, linked via a very long cable to somewhere in the distance and a plug from the oil pump in the other. One of the men on the oil tank yelled “hey” and he plugged the plug into the socket. The oil pump pumped some oil into one of the sacks, the three men held over the opening of the oil tank and filled it with oil. The next “hey” and the plug was pulled out. They held the oil sack a while over the tank to let the oil run through and then handed it on to the other man, who drained the last drops of oil out of the sack. Finally he removed the slimy parts of the sack and handed it back to the three on the tank. This was they way they sorted out one of the numerous problems which had flooded my email account in the days before the tour started they filtered the otherwise unusable oil. I was told that these five men had done this job for two and a half days already, to prepare sufficient oil for our locos … In the end they filtered sufficient oil to give us power for all the planned days on the line. The locos produced smoke much easier than with clear oil which we loved! Pictures from the oil filtering can be found in the German trip report.
In the left upper corner you can see no birds, but bats!
Finest mainline steam
Not all of the ordered additional four wheel cars left the workshop on time. However, compared to the January 2017 tour, we celebrated six extra arrivals: two open wagons with low sides and flat bearings (highly appreciated!), two other open wagons and one open wagon with a high frame. The ordered covered wagon we had picked from the scrap yard turned out to be beyond repair, at least when you don’t have a Hollywood-budget, and the two other ordered open wagons couldn’t be found. You should understand that Myanma Railways although it doesn’t look like it has modernised its rolling stock and dumped almost all four wheel wagons. Most of them are scrapped now. Even a visit to the largest wagon repair shop in January 2017, in search of more suitable wagons, brought only a few usable results (which are now back on the track). To make us happy, they overhauled a four wheel tank wagon very nice!
First the regular diesel train, and then ...
Combining four wheel wagons with bogie wagons is not as easy as you may think. They have rules about it, and you can only run them in blocks. Physics cannot describe it, hence they could not explain to me why, but it is as it is. Behind a set of four wheel wagons, you can’t just couple a bogie wagon before continuing with four wheel wagons. They want at least three wagons of one type before they allow another change. Together with the already overhauled four wheel wagons from the January 2017 tour and the new arrivals, it was now possible to operate a long train with almost only four wheel wagons. It looked fantastic.
On a meeting with high ranking managers of the board (for instance, the General Manager of operations and the General Manager of workshops) after the tour we discussed moving the covered wagon from the depot at Mottama (a GX ... reading “G Cross”, with the cross indicating a 10 ton axle load. For some reason, H is for 12 tons) to the workshop to make it fit for use. In addition, I was told they had found two more of the nice open wagons, MHV, and will check whether they can be repaired within our financial limits.
Trying to fix the headlight.
At the same meeting, we also talked about the technical state of the locomotives and why the YC has a lowered steam pressure (120 psi instead of 180). The machinery to overhaul steam locomotives was sold or scrapped after they stopped using them in 2007 or, maybe, before. The workshop is now unable to overhaul steam locomotives to full conditions. They have no facility to build new fireboxes. As the sheet metal of the firebox of YC 629 is thinner than it should be, they lowered the permitted steam pressure.
They’re also lacking the facility to bore cylinders or valves. They do not have spare parts for piston glands, and they do not have detailed drawings. With this set-up, it’s only a question of time as to how long they can run steam unless a volunteer from a museum railway is flown over and teaches them how to machine things with their available machinery and how to perform heavy boiler repairs under the given circumstances. Everything is possible if you wish. And here we come to the next big point: the managers I talked to were rushing from one to meeting to another. They had to be reachable at weekends and they often have 12 hour office days. Basically, they’re just tired, and every project like ours is an additional work load which needs to be fitted in between all the other appointments and tasks they have. This all at a salary of around 300 Dollars a month, plus a company car. So even if they’re interested in and are willing to support our requests, it’s hard for them to fit the additional work into their schedules. That’s one of the reasons why it took us so many years of effort, flights and money to arrange a steam charter tour in Burma.
A Japanese railcar arrives in Bago.
However, as the rolling stock, the water, the oil supply, the turntables and the triangles etc. are all set up now, the biggest danger for the project is the planned rebuilding of the main line. A week before we flew out to Burma, I heard from my contact that the Japanese and the Chinese companies who will be contractors for the rebuilding project, have a dispute over contract details. The Japanese companies, hence, expect a delay in starting the work by at least one year. Asking the question about the current plans for the start of the construction work in Bago, the board answered, initially, mid 2018 but, later, revised it to 2019. The work on the southern part of the Yangon Mandalay main line is split into three sections: Yangon Bago, Bago Nyanglebin and Nyanglebin Taungoo. The overlap of the sections in Bago may give us an advantage. Where it needs additional co-ordination, it spells delays! The board don’t seem to be aware of the dispute between the Japanese and the Chinese companies, at the moment. So, there is no clear answer possible when the semaphores of Bago will be cut down, but the conclusion from all that was said and the information I have from Japan, is that it will not be before 2019. This was confirmed by the General Manager (Mechanical & Electrical Engineering Department) at the meeting.
The newly constructed line, Yangon Mandalay, should have a speed of 100 km/h which is good for the country, although 120 km/h would be better. However, I didn’t ask them why they had limited the top speed to 100 km/h, as it came out they have further plans …. the building of a high speed line to Mandalay in standard gauge. As much as this would make sense, I don’t see where the money will come from and how the local people could afford to use it. A loco driver earns about 120 Dollars a month, a railway manager 300, so where is the market? Even in Vietnam, which has much more economic potential, the project to build a high speed railway between Hanoi and Saigon is delayed for more than a decade.
But back to the main point for steam trains. I will offer another main line steam tour, including the stations of Bago and Pyuntaza, the only two stations on the main line which are still equipped with semaphores. As long as the YC is still going strong and the main line still looks like a green meadow and bush land with, sometimes, invisible rails peeping out of the grass, we should make the most out of it. The chance will never come back once the construction work has started. And there is no doubt that they will start soon. In Payagyi, they have piled up a mountain of finest quality ballast, using front loaders instead of, the usual, hundreds of mainly female workers. The stone trains, carrying the ballast, have now mainly large open wagons and at some places they’re loaded by machines instead of workers. The stone crushers near Mokepalin are working extra shifts …
Three days before our arrival, the monsoon had a hefty farewell meeting with Burma, with thunderstorms over most of the southern part of Myanmar, hefty rain falls and strong winds. That caused very high humidity when we arrived; something like 35 degrees and 90 % humidity, not the best circumstances for someone who is used to central European climate conditions. The group arrived and, on the first night, the monsoon said a hefty goodbye to everyone on the tour. For an hour, it felt like as much rain as in Berlin during an average November. However, the next morning was clear and sunny and hot and humid. We enjoyed a declining humidity from day to day and sunshine from wall to wall. On the last night of our tour, as the last fires in the locomotives were extinguished, a layer of clouds appeared and, the day the group flew out, it was overcast. Thanks to Buddha; he arranged it so well.
Three shots from Abya
There is not much to report about the tour because it worked so well that sometimes I was surprised about the efficiency of the railways. The wagons were arranged in the way we wanted, they even stopped the regular passenger train, 86, for our group to shunt out a blue wagon which found its way accidentally into the train composition. The passengers aboard were invited to use our train and served with some food by us and hence very patient. The delay we caused the 85/86, amounted to the usual delay they used to have in the good old days of steam. The 85/86 was, probably, the most beautiful mixed passenger train of Asia in the early 2000s. While we were photographing the train, it was always arranged that we had some 20 to 40 passengers on the train and, due to the heat, they behaved like real passengers and chose to sit on the side of the train which was in the shade … After we left the train in Hninpale, I walked along it and counted the real passengers. And the result was: one. One single passenger, no goods this pair of trains will disappear from Myanma Railways timetables in the foreseeable future. So I’m happy that we’ll have it again behind steam in 2018.
On the tour, we managed so many good pictures that two, who also booked the January tour, said this can hardly be topped and we want to give our seats to those from the waiting list. People from the waiting list were extremely happy.
As it is all so clear that metre gauge steam in Myanmar will be very likely running in a time window open for the moment but not forever, I’m thinking about the next tour. As the YC is the weakest link in the chain and the main line appearance will change enormously within the next few years, it will be a tour with the focus on the main line. Where in Asia can you see steam on a double tracked, traditional main line? And where have you two major stations with semaphores? The choice is very limited! The main line is not the most beautiful line in Myanmar - it runs through flat countryside with some rivers to cross - but the charm of the old stations, often with huge rain trees, flag-men at “historic” level crossings for strategic reasons, separate steel bridges, most of them riveted, and pagodas nearby, there is a lot of potential. And not to forget the semaphores and gantries, which will very likely remain until 2019. It’s not guaranteed, but after all the negotiations and the information from Japan, I have a gut feeling that we’ll have another go or two before the main line is modernised or at least the constructions works have started.
For the next tour we’ll have two to four additional two axle freight wagons. Then it’s time to recover from all the expenses I paid out for the running of authentic steam trains in Myanmar. For now, the available material is more than sufficient to create 100% authentic looking freight trains.
Time to leave the train ... for this time.
More pictures can found in the German trip report.