Sunday, August 20, 2017

Waiting for the train: upgrading the Yangon circle line

The Yangon circle line train. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)The Yangon circle line train. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

The Yangon circle line is itself a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. A man with a deafening voice sells cosmetics and perfumes, while an eccentric elderly person hands out free samples of bitter tasting digestive medicine. I buy a pack for K500.

A 65-year-old blind banjo player carrying a tin filled with mostly K50 notes told The Myanmar Times, “I go from carriage to carriage. I can’t rely on my children to support me, so this is my profession.”

A woman carrying a basket of peanuts on her head said, “I’m on the train every day and I never buy a ticket. If the conductor catches me, I have to pay a K1000 fine.”

The good news is that plans to modernise the circle line are in the pipeline – but the sad news is that this will take at least six years from now to complete.

Maki Morikawa, Project Formulation Advisor for the Infrastructure Sector at Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), told The Myanmar Times that a master plan for the development of greater Yangon was started in December last year and will be published in December 2013. JICA is collaborating with Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) to undertake the survey, which he described as “wide-ranging.”

“It includes issues such as water supply as well as urban transport,” Mr Morikawa said.

In May, JICA and YCDC will hold a seminar in Yangon to explain the survey and a question and answer session open to the public will take place.

Mr Morikawa explained that once the findings of the master plan are known, the government will set its priorities.

If upgrading the circle line makes the cut, the project will take five years to complete, Mr Morikawa said.

“For example, before starting the project, the government will need to put out a tender for the designer. This process takes time.”

JICA’s role in a possible upgrade “depends on [the outcome of] our discussions with the government. Of course we can provide finance and the government will prepare a budget,” he said.

When asked about whether an improved railway system would mean a rise in ticket prices, Mr Morikawa said, “We ask the same question ourselves, because the [circle line’s] passengers are from low income backgrounds. We need to discuss this in detail because a railway system is an important form of transport for everyone.”

Some may wonder why JICA didn’t initiate such plans sooner. As Mr Morikawa explained, JICA’s operations were relatively small between 1988 and 2003 and it wasn’t until 2011 that it began to expand its presence in Myanmar after a statement on cooperation was jointly issued by the governments of Japan and Myanmar.

Mr Morikawa said, “It’s important to see transport as a network – but so far the government hasn’t developed a concrete plan or coordination. It’s a big investment, so it’s a big decision.”

The report (which has no connection to JICA and YCDC’s plans) estimates that upgrading the railway will cost US$10 million per kilometre, amounting to a total cost of more than $400 million.

It states, “construction costs aside, the project can become profitable in about 15 years’ time” and calculates that the amount of money saved by having an efficient train line (which thereby reduces commuting times) and “increased consumer surplus from the reduction in generalised costs… are calculated to be approximately… $39.1 million a year.”

The study describes Yangon’s bus system as suffering from “insufficient management of the proliferation of routes, the poor quality of vehicles, inadequate bus networks, and lack of financial support.” This causes “on-the-road competition and threatens the safety of the public.”

Although upgrading the circle line would consume a vast amount of money, the report argues that “a frequent and reliable railway system produces more overall benefits than a bus system because railway development can attract high levels of investment from the private sector and promote real estate development around the station, which typically does not happen in the case of a bus system… Such incentives can enable the local government to form public private partnerships (PPPs), such that government spending on railway improvement can be minimised.”

Although Yangon’s infrastructure is comparatively weak – a factor that will add to the overall cost of the project: “on the positive side, the land for the Yangon circular railway is ready and no resettlement of inhabitants is required.”

It seems inevitable that Yangonites will one day take a metro for granted, and that the entire lap will take around 35 minutes. The real question is when.