Burma Govt Hopes for Rangoon-Myitkyina Rail Upgrade

By Simon Roughneen 11 December 2013

VIENTIANE — Burma’s government wants to upgrade the country’s main railway line from Rangoon to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, almost 1,000 miles north on the Irrawaddy River.

The hoped-for renovation would build on a separate deal to upgrade the rail line from Rangoon to Mandalay, and would link from Mandalay to Myitkyina in turn.

“We are discussing with South Korea and ADB [Asian Development Bank, a Manila-based regional lender] about this project,” Myint Myint San, general manager at the Ministry of Rail Transportation, told The Irrawaddy, referring to the Mandalay-Myitkyina section of the line.

Details of the proposed rail upgrade, including funding, have not yet been finalized, she added.

Early this month, Japanese media reported that a deal was being arranged between Tokyo and Naypyidaw to upgrade the Rangoon-Mandalay rail link, after first being proposed by Japanese parliamentarians during a visit to Naypyidaw in September.

The Rangoon-Mandalay train journey takes about 15 hours at the moment, but officials hope that will be cut to around eight hours after the upgrade, for which survey work will start next year.

“We hope the Mandalay to Myitkyina line will take around the same time, after that new line is completed,” Myint Myint San said.

Currently the Mandalay-Myitkyina train journey can take up to 24 hours, a 400-mile, stop-start countryside crawl with goods-laden passengers jumping on and off along the way.

In May, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Burma, bringing with him business leaders from some of Japan’s biggest corporations. That visit saw Japan lend 51 billion yen (US$495 million) to Burma, of which 17 billion yen is slated for infrastructure improvements, including work on railways.

Burma’s Ministry of Rail Transportation last month said companies from Japan and Singapore had expressed interest in an upcoming tender to modernize Rangoon’s main railway station, a city heritage building dating to 1877 and reconstructed after World War II.

Rail upgrades are likely to be discussed at the coming weekend’s Japan-Asean summit in Tokyo, which Burma President Thein Sein is expected to attend.

Decrepit colonial-era infrastructure is frequently cited by would-be investors as a reason to hold off on putting money into Burma, though inward investment into the country is increasing. The World Bank estimates that foreign direct investment (FDI) grew from 3.7 percent of GDP in 2011-12 to 5.2 percent in 2012-13.

Myint Myint San said Burma has long-term plans to try to improve the national rail network to match neighboring countries, but acknowledged that such infrastructure upgrades will take time.

“We do not have rail connections with neighboring countries,” she said, adding that the first such link is likely to connect the Dawei Special Economic Zone in Burma’s south to Kanchanaburi in Thailand.

Myint Myint San was speaking on the sidelines of the 19th Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Ministerial Conference in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on Wednesday morning.

Lei Lei Thein, Burma’s deputy minister of national planning and economic development, addressed the meeting, which will see a tentative agreement between the six member countries—Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as Burma—to improve cross-border links between the various national railways.

“Myanmar regards the GMS as a means to expand and improve its links to countries in Southeast Asia,” the deputy minister told her counterparts.