Almost a century after trams stopped running in Yangon, a new electric line along Strand Road has opened, funded by Japanese investment.
The three-carriage commuter vehicle will run six times each day, from 8am to 1pm, starting from Wardan Street and travelling to Linsadaung in Botahtaung township – a journey of around 3 miles (4.8 kilometres), with tickets costing K100 each.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Rail Transportation and Japan’s West Corporation are funding the project, which is aimed at helping relieve some of the pressure on the city’s congested streets.
“Today, we change to a new system in railways, from diesel to electricity,” said Union Minister for Rail Transportation U Nyan Htun Aung at the opening ceremony yesterday.
“Trams were first introduced to Yangon in 1906 and 77 vehicles ran until 1921. Now they have come to life again.”
The tram line is now being extended from Wardan to Kyeemyindaing and from Linsadaung to Pazundaung, and the longer line will be ready for use later this year. It will eventually be connected with Yangon’s circular railway, officials said.
The railways ministry signed a 455 million yen (US$3.88 million) investment agreement with West Corporation last July.
The tram depot, power station and 6.6 kilovolt power line cost K143.13 million, said U Nyan Htun Aung.
“Along the railway we built 139 poles to support the tram, and we will build a transformer to ensure a continuous electricity supply,” he said.
For safety along the railway, the ministry will fix traffic lights at the junctions of Wardan, Pansodan and Sinodan streets complete with a sound system, and will also put up signboards.
The 50-year-old tram cars are from Japan, Japanese ambassador Tateshi Higuchi said yesterday.
“They have been well maintained and will last,” he said. “In Myanmar too, you must notice that maintenance is very important.”
The project has received much Japanese assistance. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure Transport and Tourism (MLIT) of Japan and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) both helped with technology and training.
U Htun Aung Thin, a general manager at state-owned Myanma Railways said “We want to provide good public transportation. At present we will run three carriages that can carry nearly 460 commuters.
Of all the types of train, the tram is the easiest to maintain and operates at a low cost, he said.
“We will continue to offer this service whether we gain profit or not. By using this tram, commuters from six downtown townships will find their journey to work more convenient and they can avoid traffic jams.”
Yangon’s 46-kilometre (28-mile) circular railway is also set to be upgraded, with Japanese investment, technology and guidance.
Last July, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to modernise the line and committed to a $250 million soft loan. The Japanese government, through JICA, will upgrade the infrastructure, including new trains and signalling.
Myanma Railways will be responsible for upgrading the track and tendering the existing 38 stations for redevelopment. For now, most commuters use public buses – the circular railway is slow and unreliable.
For Mr Higuchi, modernising Myanmar’s rail network is “essential”.
“As far as I know, only 1 percent of people are using trains in Myanmar, while in our country around 60pc of people use trains,” he said. “This is the first step in a project to change the entire circular line to become a modern electric railway.”
Large-scale infrastructure investment is necessary, as Yangon’s population is projected to double from 5.1 million to 10 million by 2040 – or 1.5 million more people than are currently living in Bangkok.