James Waite write of a visit with FarRail.
Namtu lies in the northeast of Shan State. Several hundred years ago, when the area was under Chinese influence, silver mining took place here in the hills west of the town and continued until water level was reached in the mines.
The British colonial period in this part of the country began in 1883, and the Burma Railways line from Mandalay reached Lashio in 1903. It was estimated that the slag heaps left from the old Chinese workings contained at least 150,000 tonnes of lead and in 1906 the Burma Mines Railway & Smelting Company was formed to recover it. Construction of the
two foot (610mm) gauge railway began from the main line at Manpwe in 1907 and reached the mining area at Tiger Camp, more than
80km away, the following year. It included a Z reverse at Wallah Gorge, just before Tiger Camp, which was later replaced by a spiral. The line onwards to Bawdwin, the eventual terminus, runs through exceptionally difficult country and was not completed until 1909. In addition to reclaiming the lead from the old slag heaps the company soon began fresh mining operations. The mines are now worked for silver, lead and cobalt.
The main yard, engine shed and repair shops were set up at Namtu, abut 80km from Namyao. Originally the ore was taken to a smelter at Mandalay, but smelting began at Namtu in 1911. The current smelter is served by a branch running for about
2km northeast of Namtu yard, and has its own internal 500mm gauge system using battery locos. In 1914 the line reached its final form when the exchange point with Burma Railways was moved from Manpwe to Namyao, a short distance to the east.
Passenger services on the railway probably started during the First World War and have run ever since, although by the time of our visit there was no regular service south of Namtu. They had always been free of charge though recently the whole operation has been privatised and this may perhaps have changed. Most of the carriages still in service date from the late 1960's. An electrified underground line at Tiger Camp and Wallah Gorge was built in 1921 which brings ore direct from a deep mines, and American-built bogie hopper wagons replaced the older 4-wheeled stock at about the same time. Output from the mine reached its peak in 1930.
The initial motive power consisted of five tank locos with a 1.3 metre rigid wheelbase supplied by Dick Kerr of Preston. Three 0-6-0 tender engines followed. From about 1910 onwards the line from the main line junction to Namtu was worked by the tender locos which were changed at Nashai, about
32km from Namyao. The section onward from Namtu to Bawdwin was worked mainly by tank engines which often ran double-headed.
From 1914 onwards most of the tank locos were supplied by Kerr Stuart, either the "Tattoo" class 0-4-2ST or the larger "Huxley" class 0-4-2T. There were also several other small locos from various sources. From 1922 eight 2-6-2 tender engines were supplied by Bagnall. This design was later developed into a 2-6-2T, and some of the earlier tender locos were later rebuilt to this design using parts supplied by Bagnalls. However no. 42, the sole survivor of this group, was never rebuilt and remains a tender loco. Originally the locos had been wood fired but coal firing was adopted in 1925.
By 1929 a total of forty seven steam locos had been built for the railway. Seventeen of the older locos were withdrawn during the 1930's slump and no new engines were delivered until the arrival of ten O&K six-wheeled diesels in 1979. Two further similar diesels have followed from Diema and, in 1996, one Chinese-built loco. In about 1988 three railcars appeared converted from lorries. We were told that two of these were converted from Japanese-built Hino lorries and that the third was built in Myanmar. The lorry-railcars now work the passenger services between Namtu and Bawdwin. The railway also possesses at least five smaller railcars or trolleys built by Wickham of Ware and at least one ambulance car possibly also built by Wickham. We saw Wickham railcar no. 2 on what appeared to be a staff working at Wallah Gorge and ambulance railcar no. ARC 3 in the shed at Namtu. There are several overhead electric locos for the section at Wallah Gorge and battery locos for use in the mines.
Steam continued in occasional use commercially until 2002 – latterly only Bagnall-built 2-6-2 no. 42 which was used for shunting at Namyao and possibly Kerr Stuart "Huxley" class 0-4-2T no. 13 at Namtu:
Now they are the only two steam locos in service though no. 42 has recently been set aside in need of an overhaul which it may well receive during 2013. Since 2002 the locos have only been steamed for visiting enthusiasts. Two more of the Huxley class, no's 34 and 40, are preserved in Namtu yard with two of the smaller Tattoo class. The latter are supposed to be no's 14 and 16, although this is unlikely to be correct as the published loco lists show no. 16 as one of three North British 0-6-0 tender locos built in 1915. Many more of the locos survived in varying stages of decay in or around Namtu yard until 12 years or so ago when, most regrettably, they were cut up in order to make the place looktidier in readiness for the first enthusiasts group visit for many years. However many of the boilers were spared the cutters' torch and remained in store in Namtu shed. One other Tattoo class loco escaped and is now plinthed at Mahlwagon diesel depot in Rangoon. However attempts to gain permission to visit it when I returned to the country in December 2012, both at the gate and at the offices at the central station, met with a flat refusal.
Between Namyao and Namtu the line runs mostly through undulating jungle terrain. About
3km before Namtu it passes a ruined smelter and drops down a steep gradient into the valley of the Namtu River before crossing the river on a substantial girder bridge and entering Namtu yard. The ruling gradient throughout from Namyao is 1 in 38.
Heading on westwards from Namtu the line follows the valley for a further 2km before turning abruptly into a side valley. From here the line climbs continuously to Bawdwin at a ruling gradient of 1 in 27, hugging the side of the valley for most of the distance. The line twists and turns continuously as it makes its way up the gorge with many spectacular views.
Lopah, 8km from Namtu, has a pretty station building, a loop and some sidings. 3.5
km further on the line reaches the spiral at Wallah Gorge in a most attractive setting overlooked by a small pagoda. Immediately beyond the spiral it enters an extensive yard, with the loading staithes for the ore, a large wooden structure, on the right hand side. On the north side of the line and at a much higher level the electrified line ends in a loop with two tipplers alongside the staithes. 1 km further on the line reaches Tiger Camp, the junction with the electrified mine lines and at an altitude of about 800
Bawdwin lies about 3.5 km to the west of Tiger Camp but is at 180 metres higher altitude. The line onwards from Tiger Camp starts with a lengthy Z reverse high above Wallah Gorge and continues with many horseshoe bends. It has a total length of about 8
The line divides at Bawdwin to serve separate entrances to the mines. The railway also serves an extensive timber yard on the south side of the line a little before the station and town, where teak is prepared for shipment. The mining company has its main office at Bawdwin, in an attractive timber building dating from British colonial times.
Nowadays coal for the smelters is brought by road from China and most of the finished product also leaves Namtu by road. The line south from Namyao as far as Namtu only saw occasional traffic during the 2006 visit and had become somewhat dilapidated. It has been reported to have closed altogether since then. The section onwards to Bawdwin was much better maintained. Ore from Bawdwin and Tiger Camp is shipped to Namtu by rail and this section saw quite heavy use with three return trains per day. Since our visit a working steam roller has come to light in Namtu and it has graced the scene for several recent tour groups.
The district around Namtu suffered considerable damage during the Second World War, some of which is still evident today. More recently for many years the area was strictly off-limits to foreigners and even now only group visits are allowed.
I visited the railway in February 2006 with a group organised by Bernd Seiler's FarRail Tours. Typically visits last for two days, with a trip to Bawdwin one day with no. 13 and a run towards Namyao the other, with no. 42 for the first few
km as far as the old smelter site and then with one of the diesels. Bernd persuaded the management to let us take no. 42 up the short branch to the smelter before the run towards Namyao, an excellent move which doubled the number of photo opportunities for the day. Visitors are accommodated at the mining company's guest house, a fine old colonial building which we were told was once the governor's house. The house, and especially the garden, are kept in very good condition and the view from the garden, high up overlooking the valley, is superb. Namtu yard was fascinating and more like a village than just a railway depot. The ever-helpful lady at the noodle stall produced some of the tastiest food it has ever been my privilege to experience. As always in Burma the people were some of the kindest and most delightful that one could ever wish to meet. Things are changing in the country after the limited introduction of democracy. Let's hope that this remote district is able to retain its character for many years to come.