Rangoon’s Railway

Sean Havey The Irrawaddy

RANGOON — The patina looks as though it had eroded slowly revealing subtle layers of aquamarine paint that appear much like the aerial view of a strip mine.

“You can’t paint that. It would ruin it,” said Ye Lwin, Station Master of Yangon Central Railway Station as he points to a 40-year old coach car that has just pulled into the station.

Like some of the trains that pull into it, Yangon Central Railway Station, by western standards, is a vestige from the past. The original station was a wooden structure built in 1877 and later destroyed by the British during the Second World War as the Japanese forces advanced. After the war the Burmese government built the current brick structure with a stucco façade in a traditional Burmese aesthetic.

Wrought iron gates separate the main waiting area from Platform One where the train to Mandalay sets out six times a day. Cars are divided by class: Upperclass, Sleeper Class and Ordinary Class.

Myanmar Railways is owned by a Japanese company that plans to modernize some of the lines to decrease commute times. The other five platforms lead to trains going to various destinations around Burma.

The “circular train,” as the name suggests, follows a circular path through 39 stations. For one dollar the train takes about three hours to finish one round trip. The microcosmic city at the Central Station includes a living quarters for many of the 800 employees of the station as well as their families.

While their husbands unload freight and perform other duties needed to keep the station operating, women gather to wash clothing under a leaky water tower that feeds the nearby bathrooms. They wring out the clothing by beating it on the concrete platform and then hang their family’s clothing on nearby fences.

Vendors, mostly women, sell fruit and prepare food dishes as people line up to snack before taking off on their journeys.

In a quieter area far from the stairwell and pathways that lead to the platforms, young men between shifts play soccer. The cheers from the young fans sitting on the rails below are periodically interrupted as trains roll in and the players pause in fear that a wild kick might lose the ball under a train.

Above a lookout from the Control Station keeps an eye on the trains coming and going as a large green map of the rails conveys train information to the track controllers who casually smoke cigarettes as they control passengers’ destinations by pulling and pushing shiny metal levers back and forth to switch tracks. Small red and green lights on the map denote which switches have been shunted as a clock looms above while the Control Master sits behind a pile of papers in the center of the room keeping an eye on the action.

Just past the main lines a maintenance worker walks the roof of a train with hose in hand to wash the cars and fill the water tanks onboard. Water trickles down the sides of the antique cars built in India prior to World War Two as men work in access ditches below the trains repairing the giant iron and steel underbelly and greasing the couplings.

Commuters hop on and off as some of their brethren onboard read newspapers. Some lounge on the slatted wooden seats and invariably other passengers gaze out from the large unglazed rectangular windows watching the platform they left behind and the railways ahead.