For perhaps the last time, we travelled long distances on the old mainline and under steam. Riveted bridges, manually operated level-crossings, signalmen and station chiefs who stand next to the track with a green flag to signal the trains thorough. Manually operated mechanical points, sometimes linked to semaphore signals. Bullhead rail screwed into wooden sleepers where else can you get all this on a double-track mainline in
The whole mainline from Yangon to
The construction work started in December 2018. We saw construction teams on small bridges, examining the subgrade for potential problems. Along the line, new concrete sleepers as well as tons of ballast are stored. The whole project was opened with a ceremony in Pyuntaza. Next to the station in Pyuntaza they have built living quarters for the builders and offices from where the international group of engineers, surveyors, construction supervisors and builders operate over the southern part of the line. Japanese, Malaysian and Chinese will undertake the conversion of track together with the local workers. The start of construction was delayed temporarily due to floods following extreme monsoon rainfall. Several bridges were damaged, one even had to be rebuilt as temporary bridge and will be replaced as part of the line modernisation.
The branch line from Nyaunglebin (north of Pyuntaza) to Madauk has hardly been in use for more than ten years. Until 2000, this line had two busy pairs of steam trains every day. This was changed, when all services had to be replaced by railcars, because the neglected track could not stand the weight of steam locomotives. At first, home-made rail buses with rubber wheels were used. These had such a small passenger capacity, that quite a lot of travellers had to take the bus instead. The transport of agricultural products like pigs and the pottery from surrounding villages also used the road. In later years, when they started to use second-hand bought railcars from Japan, so much traffic had already lost that just one pair of trains was offered and this was shortly reduced to one train per day only. Thus, the railcar is drove to Madauk one day and returning to Pyuntaza the following. The railcar stayed in Madauk overnight and this was obviously not an economical solution. The wooden sleepers of the line are almost completely rotten and approximately every third sleeper has been replaced by a concrete one. Even so, the railcars were permitted to run between 8 kph and 15 kph only.
Until the turn of the millennium, Train 162 used to leave Madauk every afternoon, loaded lots of pottery at Pazunmyaung stop and brought it to Pyuntaza. As the potteries around Madauk are still in service, it was an attractive idea to put the old Train 162 back into service. This idea required considerable work on the line including the installation of some new sleepers and ballast work. It soon became clear, that this would “bust our budget”, so alternative solutions (not cheap either!) had to be discussed. Several meetings took place. Finally, the ballasting of particularly dangerous sections and installation of sleepers started. As a result, some sections of the line were allowed a speed of 40 kph. However, this good news did not last very long. Long sections of the line were flooded due to extreme monsoon in 2018, a bridge was damaged and most of the new ballast was washed out. So further repairs were required. The bridge repairs resulted in a speed restriction of 8 kph across the bridge. Further sections can be used with this low speed only, especially around Madauk. The maximum speed is currently 25 kph (if you can call it “speed“) and changes are unlikely. Common financial sense says this branch line should have closed already. However, it is not so we can still enjoy steam on this line with its incredible photographic potential. Due to the low speeds, one simply cannot reach all of the beautiful places in one day. However, we took a chance to set up a scene extremely close to pre-2000 reality. The hustle and bustle of noisy locals rushing to load as many pots as possible within the short stop, because even in real steam days the train stood still for no longer than two minutes. Unfortunately, we had bad luck with the weather, so we will have another attempt in December 2019. This is an amazing sight, not to be missed.
The condition of the serviceable steam locomotives is not really that good, but they still look very attractive and take a wonderful photograph. Under the hood there is a serviceable locomotive, not a perfectly maintained one. The boiler pressure has been reduced for safety reasons as the crown sheets, firebox and the foundation ring are not in the best condition. The construction of new fire boxes is quite expensive and the truth is, even if they would like to, no company in
The steam locomotives are used with trains with no through brake. This was and is standard practice for the stone trains and some other freight trains on the double-track mainline from at least 1998 onwards. The YD’s do have a steam brake for the locomotive, but the only remaining serviceable YC don’t even have this. You have to stop them by putting the loco into reverse. Our biggest project (see January 2019 newsletter), requires reinstating the loco brakes. Indeed, they had told us, that the brakes were not working, but after two decades, it was no real surprise. However, during the trip I switched on the vacuum pump once, and to my surprise it sort of worked. Therefore, after our trip in December 2018, we asked once again for a locomotive in steam, and six wagons with a vacuum brake, to watch what would happen. In the beginning, almost nothing the locomotive could not create a vacuum. A few covers were taken off from the footplate and the search for a leak started. With poor light and noise from the oil burner, it was quite hard to find anything. So, I asked for an open flame. They looked at me quite astonished, but after some internal discussions, somebody gave me his mobile with activated flashlight. No, I don’t need light, but an open flame, a cigarette lighter would do. My explanation, that the flame would detect the leak, was not understood. All they did was to open the fire door to show that the fire hole was bricked up, so no way to get to an open flame. As I said, most of the knowledge is lost! Finally, a smoker had a cigarette lighter, we found the leak in a pipe below the footplate and we managed to seal it within 15 minutes.
Using the (larger) second valve, we achieved almost 19 inches of mercury vacuum, with the first valve (which is normally used during the journey) only 11 inches. But that is not sufficient. The complete train was examined for leaks, with a surprising result there were no leaks at all. After these checks were carried out ,the railway men sat down in front of the loco and thought this would be the end of the journey. Or were they waiting for the self-healing powers of the loco? I was not prepared to accept this, so I asked for the brake locksmith. As brake tests were mandated by headquarters, there should be at least one brake locksmith, shouldn’t there? Not to be found near to the train but he might be somewhere in the depot. We didn’t find him in the depot, but in the nearby teahouse. We had not even finished explaining the issue to him, when his immediate reaction was “it must go to Insein works”!
After we persuaded him to have a look at the situation the brake locksmith finally agreed to have a look at the train. After he got to the train, I convinced him to take off every single wagon, started with the last one, to check how many wagons the loco was able to “supply” with vacuum. This was done, but even with only one wagon it was not more than 15 in/Hg. The loco on its own achieved a bit more than 18 in/Hg only simply not enough. At the test one week previously, the result was 22, although the leak in the loco had not been sealed at this time.
Searching for the leak
This could only be due to the ejector. Now it was time to check the cones in the vacuum ejector, but all they said was: “it must go to Insein”! Why couldn’t we simply have a look on our own? It could have been scale, nothing more. No way, this was not allowed in the depot. This was the end of the brake test and everybody fell back into deep sleep of disinterest.
After this journey, we did not only visit the headquarters of the railway, but also the mountainous east of the country, to get some information for further trips.
In Namtu the following diesel locomotives are serviceable:
308 requires a renewal of the brake cylinder.
Of all “lorry-railcars” just NBRTE 03 is serviceable, 01 is located in Namtu and 02 is parked in Baldwin. During our trip NRRTE 03 was parked in Tiger Camp.
The mine will not be sold to the Australian corporation MYL, but they are rather interested in buying 52 % of the shares. 25 % of the shares would be kept by Corner Stone, which is owned by a Burmese with Chinese roots, the remaining 23 % stay with the Burmese Company Win Myint Mo, who is the current managing company.
For the last 18 months, test drillings have been carried out by the Australian company. By doing that, a vein of ore was found below Bawdwin, which could be exploited with open cast mines. In total they calculated 90 Million tons of ore-rich stones, approx. 33 Million tons of which could be easily exploit. Due to high cost, they don’t want to re-open the underground mine. An Australian Company on-site with engineers from Australia, China, Malaysia and Thailand plus about 150 native employees will do most of the heavy lifting. This will result in an opening of a new open cast mine in Bawdwin, which will erode the town slowly.
At present, the only regular trains are railcars that drive once a week to Tiger Camp. This ensures the provisioning of the employees and the payment of their salaries. The railway at Namtu Bawdwin has got 46 employees and further 6 in Namyao. For quite a few years, no train drives to Namyao and today it would be difficult, as the rails are overgrown and the track is bad.
Today, the only profitable job is the transportation of stones for the road building from Lopah to Namtu. At present they are working on the rail to the old smelter and it was scheduled to be completed in two weeks after our visit. The big slag heap of the old smelter is supposed to be processed again, as the ore content is high enough, to pay back the costs and a new plant will be built. The railway will bring the slag to the new plant, where the remaining ore will be almost completely taken out. The raw product will be transported on trucks to Lashio.
As currently agreed, the route from Namtu to Tiger Camp will be maintained in service, when MYL will get the majority of the shares. Some track work will be done and the old loading facility in Wallah Gorge is likely being demolished. The electric mine railway is supposed to be closed completely. In the future it is planned to “water extract” the ore in Bawdwin and transport it through pipes to Namtu. Then, the railway will be more or less obsolete.
Further plans are not known yet. The start of these projects is expected in 2020. As with many other things, it could be delayed but it won’t be stopped.
Both steam locomotives have been repaired during the so-called shutdown and No 13 received new tubes. Sadly, hardly anything was done to the mechanical part of the locos. However, both locomotives passed a test drive successfully and got new paint. They shine brightly now, just the “customers” are missing.
At present, it is possible to get a travel permission to Namtu but for Namtu and a five-miles-radius only. This still not allows us to go to Wallah Gorge with its fantastic spiral and the wooden loading facilities. However, the situation in Namtu is currently peaceful, so an opening of this area for tourists might be possible again.
So is another trip to
More (different) pictures can found in the German trip report.