eThe International Steam Pages
Steamy Burma Days 1999
There is an update available to this report: Steamy Burma Days 1999/2000
Bernd Seiler was here a few week before me and you should read his report too for a slightly different perspective.
This report is based on 2 weeks in the country as a 'normal' back packing tourist with my wife, with a further 2 weeks experiencing the steam activity. If you are new to the steam scene here you ought to read Steamy Burma Days 1996 and Steamy Burma Days 1997. It includes steam, travel and beer news. My thanks this year are due to Peter Nash who came with me and seems to be the only enthusiast in the world mad enough to put up with my esoteric railfanning. How many other places in the world can we Brits indulge ourselves watching 'our' steam locomotives at work on the mainline in 1999?
Active steam is much thinner on the ground compared to 1996 and 1997. At last eight further DF20xx have been delivered from China (DF2038-2045) and the release of two diesels from the cancellation of one of the daily Mottama trains has meant that less steam is needed particularly on the stone trains out of Bago. The railway as a whole seems to be seeing significant investment, with much track refurbishment and a number of new wagons and coaches. There has been a punctuality drive and with rare exceptions trains ran almost to time. We only saw one steam locomotive which had been through Insein Works in the last year. If you haven't been to Burma yet, eat your heart out, you may have missed something special - I am prejudiced because plastic railtours here will run for years to come but I wouldn't cross the road to photograph one (unless it had a Garratt on the front). For those with short arms and a deep pocket, you might like note that the shed 'grip' has gone up from 300K to 500K per person. It was the first time I had been at this time of year (because of my wife's fixed holiday dates). I had hoped that the extra daylight compared to December would increase photographic possibilities. In practice, temperatures were higher and light quality was poorer owing to haze/dust. From this experience, next time I would come in December. Photographically it was by far the least rewarding of my recent trips here.
The current Bago allocation is YC 630 and YDs 962, 967, 969, 972 and 974. 967 and 972 face Up as did 630 initially although it was turned at some stage during my visit. 630 and 972 are painted green, the rest black. One important change this year was that the Nyaungkhashe branch loco was taking water on the return instead of the outward trip.
630 was the loco on the Nyaungkhashe train facing Up on 29th January. On February 7th, 972 (heavy repair Insein, 7/98) was working the Nyaungkhashe train, the first time I had seen a YD on it. My wife and I rode the train, as usual it left Bago at 11.00 (instead of 10.30) and got back just after 17.00 (instead of 15.30). The crew were very friendly allowing me to make the most of limited photographic opportunities on a day when the light was never very good. Compared to 1997, the train had gained two ordinary class coaches. All other Bago locomotives were on shed in the morning and still there in the evening. The following morning all were still present, 967 was in use shunting at the station and the Nyaungkhashe train left behind 974.
Station records at Kyaikto in late January showed that a steam locomotive had been through on a stone train recently about every second day, but in our initial (tourist) travels in the area we saw only one steam hauled stone train on the line (and several diesel ones) and one waiting to go out from Bago. My initial judgement was that steam activity has declined significantly in the last two years - in late 1996 I saw three stone trains heading into Bago in a single (rather exceptional) day!
We returned to Bago on February 16th. Shed records showed that the whole allocation had worked the Nyaungkhashe branch train in turn recently, which confirmed my feelings that the locos were generally underemployed. 972 was rostered for the Nyaungkhashe train, 969 was in steam for shunting, 962 had been at Mokpalin for nearly a week, apparently under repair, and 974 had gone to Theinzyat the previous day to pick up a stone train. So we piled on to 81 Up and headed east. This train does not stop at Abya where we passed 974 heading for home. Not the disaster it seemed as we were able to leave our train where it rejoined the main road because continuing major bridgeworks slowed it to a crawl. After 20 minutes we got a pick-up back to Waw where we were just in time to photograph 974 coming off the 'draw-bridge'. It barely paused for breath so we had no choice but to adjourn for refreshment to the local tea shop, very thirsty on a very hot day. I thought the musical entertainment was a Burmese rendition of Beatles favourites until Peter pointed out that the tape was in French. We were so dehydrated that only after 3 large beers did Peter need to visit the station facilities where he assures me he was confronted by a 6 foot King Cobra. When I went down later, there was just the usual nasty smell. Faced with a choice of U$2 each for the diesel hauled express (90 Down) or U$1 each for the steam hauled passenger we opted for the latter which allowed us a much needed extra half hour's wait. We visited the Panda restaurant in Bago for dinner which provided (again and again) by far the best food I have ever had in Burma.
On February 17th, 972 was again rostered for the Nyaungkhashe train and 969 was in steam 'for shunting' Smokebox first out of Bago is not very good for photography so we opted for a day off - I got a pick up to near Kali to get the 'Pagoda Shot' and then adjourned to the 3 5's restaurant for a couple of jugs of draught Mandalay. Later, after I had managed an hour's work, we dragged ourselves to the station where we discovered that 969 had actually taken a stone train (tender first) up the main line north to Payagyi. Return time was uncertain and we were admiring the inside of the north signal cabin when Peter noticed 969 approaching. The friendly signalmen held it just long enough for us to get down the line to get our shots in - Peter caught it under the gantry (see Steamy Burma Days 1997) while I headed further up to get the train coming past the next set of semaphores. Perfect light and perhaps a little luckier than we deserved.
Overnight the steam side of the railway had burst into action, so much so that it required some debate as to how to take advantage of it. 972 had left in the Yangon direction(!!) but its return time was indeterminate. 967 was in steam for shunting, 962 was on its way back from Mokpalin and 969 had been sent to Theinzyat. 630 would work the Nyaungkhashe train, so only 974 was not in steam. We sorted out our plans over breakfast, which was unfortunate as 962 arrived although we did catch it shunting. We left on 81 Up and found 969 at Waw. We photographed it leaving, watched 630 pass through and I had a Burmese curry for lunch and went gricing the local rice mills. After appropriate refreshment, we waited for 630 to return, photographing it on the draw-bridge before returning with it to Bago just in time to get the 'Gantry Shot' courtesy of a typically friendly Burmese loco crew. Simply a superb day, the only downside being the sighting of DF2031 on a set of new airbraked wagons for carrying stone at Naungpattaya in the afternoon.
On February 19th, overnight 967 had been sent to Zingyaik, and 630 to Taungzun. 967 went smokebox first outbound, so was no use to us (but would have been great if we had had the courage to ride it) and we could only hope 630's return would be at the right time of day eventually. So we had a gentle day with 969 on the Nyaungkhashe train, cold beers at the terminus and a staged departure which was made in photographic heaven. Much needed as the lack of night time electricity and high temperatures were making sleep less than easy.
On February 20th, overnight 630 had returned and would work the Nyaungkhashe train. 972 had been sent to Theinzyat and 974 to Zingyaik, 962 was shunting. We joined up with John Raby (who had the use of a car) and set out to follow 630, although we saw 972 coming back at Kali and later 967 at Waw. 90 Down was running very late so we only just managed to get from the bridge just where the Nyaunkhashe branch leaves the main line to Abya in time (normally it waits at least 20 minutes there. Returning to Waw we were somewhat surprised to be able to do the 'drawbridge' shot again - there seemed to a Japanese on the train with a guide who had presumably arranged for the train to stop. After watching the train leave Waw, we returned directly to Bago where we saw 967 arrive at 17.00 and 630 some twenty minutes later.
YB 534 works the weekly salt trains to Sittoung (it was at Theinzyat on 26th January) with YC 622 as reserve loco. These locos work very occasional goods trains as required. YB 533 was said to have gone to Insein. My schedule did not allow me to investigate these operations more, the one area where I have never been very successful.
We took 11 Up from Yangon which arrived in Pyuntaza at 09.30. The Madauk branch train was operating normally (2 workings a day, morning and afternoon). YCs 624 (green), 626 (black) and 627 (green) are available. All locos face down and 626 on 10th February 626 headed train 162 into Pyuntaza at 10.25. YB532 and YC623 are stored here, both needing a major overhaul.
We took a pick up to Nyaunglebin and in the afternoon we boarded the train there with local tickets (purchased on our behalf for 15Kyat each). 626 was tender first and we were able to ride the loco immediately because the crew recognised me from last year. All went well until we were about a mile from Madauk. Suddenly the loco lurched and started jumping around, after what seemed like an eternity we came to a halt. The two to three hundred passengers had had a lucky escape as the loco's bogie and driving wheels were all off the track which had been spread. The first coach was also off the rails and leaning at an angle of about 15° from the vertical. The passengers voted with their feet and marched off en masse down the road. For me it was a most definite feeling of 'déja vu' as in 1997 I had been forced to walk 7 miles down the same dirt road, mostly in the dark. This year, time was on our side as it was not yet 16.00. We walked a mile and a half down the road and took a break at a tea shop where we enjoyed the warmest beer in Burma. At this point a timber lorry came to our rescue, taking us to the outskirts of Nyaunglebin before passing us on to a rice truck which got us back to our hotel by 17.00. It could have been a lot worse, but clearly it was going to take a day or so to sort things out so we headed north next morning.
We returned to Nyaunglebin on 14th February and the station staff assured us (accurately) that the train was running again. We got to the station in the dark at 05.30 the next morning in time for breakfast and boarded the train with green 627 in charge. On arrival in Madauk, the driver looked familiar and it turned out that he had been in charge of 964 on the stone train in 1997 when I got the classic photos at YinnYein and under the signals at Bago. So any worry about being left behind again was removed. We wandered down to the south end of the village and watched the vehicle ferry at work, scarcely more than two large river boats lashed together. At Madauk, a flood prevention scheme had thrown up earthworks around two sides of the station, providing a grand stand view of the loco running round and departing - in the case of the latter, the foreground was filled with huts belonging to the people who had been displaced. Very satisfactory photographically speaking to put it mildly. We got several departure shots at 09.00 and flung ourselves on the train. At the 'pot' station we left it and rushed a quarter of a mile down the road, just getting to the first river bridge in time. Of course, it was very warm and we were 3 miles from Nyaunglebin but after walking the first mile, we got a lift back into town. By 11.30 we were refreshed, showered and ready to go again. The afternoon working was an anticlimax, the train left promptly from Madauk at 16.40 but the light was flat. 627 worked the train again on February 16th, we left at 06.30 on 4 Down for Bago.
I dropped in on 21st February courtesy of John Raby and his taxi. 627 worked the morning train as usual. Unfortunately, the express trains were having a bad day and I had to resort to local buses to get back to Yangon as I was flying out next day. Nearly 6 hours but it cost less than U$1 and I was deposited next to Sule Pagoda, 5 minutes walk from my hotel.
We went through Toungoo on 11th February on 11 Up. Apart from the obligatory curry lunch washed down with cold beer from the station buffet we noted there were no steam locomotives present just as we had been told by Berndt Seiler and Heinrich Hubbert (other than the M Class preserved in front of the shed). We had seen no trace of steam at Pyu/Zeyewadi and as we went north we noted a diesel handling the sugar traffic for Yedashe Mill at Swa.
Active locos for the sugar season are YB 536 (facing Up and regularly working to Thawatti) and YD 961 (Kyidaunggan) and 964 (Kantha) - both facing Down. (Bago shed records show that they were sent north around 5th October 1998) I had a look at the shed and station logs and it would appear that things are actually not much changed although visitors who only stay a day or so might not think so. Between 1st January and 12th February, only in late January and again up till 11th February were there were no trains for 4 days, presumably because the sugar mill broke down. Otherwise at least one train ran every day - albeit often at times inconvenient for photography as we found.
On arrival at 15.00 on 11th February we had already noted loaded cane wagons at Thawatti and Ela. 961 was coming off the shed to work to Kyidaunggan, 536 was being prepared to work to Thawatti and one frustrated British enthusiast was heading for Mandalay after 2 days of total inactivity following the usual mill breakdown. In the event 961 did not leave until 16.30 and 536 even later so we watched 961 depart and adjourned for refreshment. After two years of sleeping on what felt like planks at the Pyinmana Co-op Motel (300 Kyat) we splashed out U$4 a head for adequate single rooms at the Phoenix Hotel although it took a little negotiation to get the discount.
The promised start at 09.00 on 12th February did not materialise and I spent the morning working after a quick temple bash. By 12.00, 536 was in steam and was being used to kick start 961. After a liquid lunch, we found 961 getting ready to go at 14.00 while 536 was firing up 964. Unfortunately, 11 Up was running 90 minutes late and one of the lines north was 'under occupation'. So we didn't leave until 16.15 and by the time we had got to Kyidaunggan we could only sit back and enjoy local hospitality before a spirited return in the early evening at 25 m.p.h. with our 300 plus ton train. Great for the soul but not very good at all for photography....
On February 13th, the omens were set better. I again spent the morning working and 961 left the shed at 14.00 with a full tank of oil and water. Alas, even though 11 Up was running 'right time', Pyinmana control was unable to let us out of the headshunt until 15.30 and even then the loco had to shunt its own empties. This was very photogenic but final departure was not until well after 16.00 by which time we were fit only for a couple of cold beers. "See you tomorrow" we said to the crew who seemed to well understand the problem.... When tomorrow came we found the steam crews on shed at 09.00 cleaning their locos - "No trains today". We were out of time and left for Pyuntaza on 12 Down at 12.40.
Summing up, I don't know what is worse, seeing nothing turn a wheel for 3 days or suffering 3 days of unphotographable action when station logs tell you that trains normally run in daylight. Quite a disappointment to put it mildly, but I am not the only visitor to find it hard going here this year, Bernd Seiler and his group did not do very well here either.
Click here for the International Working Stationary Steam Engines pages.
Relatively recently I was told that of the hundreds of rice mills in Burma, the vast majority still used vintage steam driven equipment. We spent an hour or two looking around in quiet periods and this is what we found:
On 14th February, we spend a fascinating half hour at the rice mill just north of Madauk station - it is steam powered with a system supplied by Douglas and Grant, Engineers of Kircaldy (Scotland), the small stationary engine bears the number 778. Lots of belts and spindles and an industrial archaeologist's delight. How many visitors to Madauk have popped in here?
On 18th February, we investigated two more rice mills, north of Waw station. The first again had a stationary steam engine, the only mark it had was 'TANGYE BIRMINGHAM'.
Crossing the river, we found a Marshall engine (Gainsborough, No.75868) at work with another disused next to it. Other markings noted were 'PROELL'S PATENT AUTOMATIC EXPANSION GEAR' and "PICKERING TYPE GOVERNOR'. In this mill they had what appeared to be a modified steam locomotive boiler. No doubt someone can tell me how old these were but I would offer at least 60 years as starters.
Well, these were not easy places to take pictures, but I hope it will stimulate others to look around too....
The free market rate for the Kyat in January/February was around U$1 = 320/330K, a devaluation of only 10% in the last year (the best/easiest place to change money now appears to be on the street on the east side of the Democracy(!) Monument just south-east of the Sule Pagoda). Against the Thai Baht which has recovered significantly, the devaluation is of the order of 25%. I felt that local prices had not greatly changed since my previous visit, the train fares in U$ were unchanged and the absence of visitors generally had forced down tourist hotel prices - most of the small guest houses in Bagan and Inle Lake were offering rooms with hot shower, air conditioning and breakfast for as little as U$3 per person per night. On the other hand, a couple of long train journeys in Upper Class (Yangon - Moulmein and Bago - Bagan) caused my overall spending to be significantly higher. To be fair, though, I find that the number of beers consumed varies exponentially with the number of people I am travelling with and I had company throughout. The major irritant this year was the unreliable electricity supply, nowhere did we get more than 12 hours a day and often it was less - so I got a lot less work done in quiet moments than usual.
I used my normal hotels, but in Yangon, the Dagon Hotel is closed and the Mayfair Inn at 57, 38th street south east of Sule Pagoda is a clean modern establishment with friendly owners at U$20 a night. Highly recommended!
As I have said frequently, I am a great enthusiast for the local trains in Burma, whether they be steam or diesel hauled. On February 14th, we had a long afternoon on 12 Down from Pyinmana to Nyaunglebin. Even I was disconcerted by the lady opposite us who spent most of the the first hour of the journey bent down talking to a plastic bag underneath the seat. Eventually, all was made clear as she produced a wire cage with a small parrot inside which seemed very partial to beer and chilli peppers (but not necessarily in that order). The bird was then allowed out and proceeded to wander around the coach much to everyone's amusement. She swapped places (and the parrot) with her husband and over a few Mandalay beers and a large bottle of local gin we discovered it had been the family pet for the last 20 years since the children had left home. 5 hours (and just 125 miles) flew by and I think the whole coach was sorry we were travelling no further although I cannot remember much about the rest of the evening except that the station master said that they had mended the steam loco which fell off the rails on our previous visit....
And so to the really important thing in life. Draught chilled lager beer (Mandalay and Myanmar brands) is now widely available at reasonable prices (75-95K a glass, large jugs at about 4 times a glass). For those of you (like me) who appreciate a cold beer in strange places, here are one or two of my preferred locations....
Station platforms at Yangon, Bago and Toungoo (and just outside the station at Mandalay). Swa (pit stop in the middle of the village), Nyaungkhashe (look for the beer sign over one of the shacks), Waw (about a quarter of a mile north of the level crossing east of the station), Pyinmana (just east of the second level crossing north of the station - great food too), Nyaunglebin (Rose Garden 'restaurant' at the south end of time - takeaways in plastic bags available - Tony Wardrobe, you would approve!). One thing sadly lacking this year was cheap imported Chinese beer.
Of course, if beer is too expensive you can always drink the local spirits... Mandalay Rum (in Johnny Walker Red Label bottles) and imported Thai Mekhong will leave you legless for less than a couple of U$.