FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Back in Bago

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 17, 2017

Although our steam photo charter finished last night there was still time this morning to make a quick visit to Bago depot to see our trio of steam locomotives in the shed. The line-up included our loco from yesterday, YD964, which presumably made it back in the early hours of morning. Who could resist a few last photographs before we had to get back to the hotel, finish packing and head to the airport?

Tour completed - YC629 and YD964 in front of Bago shed

Tour completed – YC629 and YD964 in front of Bago shed

Overall, this has been by far the smoothest and most successful organised tour that I have been on using chartered steam. This is testament to the meticulous planning and preparation of our tour organiser, Bernd Seiler of FarRail tours, who has been pursuing the dream of reviving steam in Burma at great effort for a decade. On top of that, I have to applaud our wonderful tour guide and a legion of railway workers for making the dream possible every day.

The tour has been a delight and offered up so many astonishing photographic opportunities, but more than that it has opened my eyes to an incredible country and the friendliest folk. I’m sure I will be back before too long to get better acquainted with the parts of the country that I haven’t seen yet.

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Stupa-fied at Payagyi

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 10, 2017

The one spot not to be missed on the line between Bago and Pyuntaza, where a huge stupa provides a stunning backdrop to the railway, eluded us yesterday. Our second train of the day, hauled by YC629, was a late addition to the itinerary that would give us a chance to rectify this.

Hometime distractions at Payagyi

Hometime distractions at Payagyi

After arriving at Payagyi at 3.25pm we enjoyed arrival and departure shots at the station before heading down the line for the classic shot. We seemed to have timed our visit for hometime at the local school so the track was lined by awe-struck school children who looked on in amazement as this steam giant headed towards them. As steam ended here in the spring of 2008 it is quite unlikely that any of them will ever have seen a steam locomotive in real life.

The classic shot had become a little obscured in the decade since the last railway tour here so a little bit of gardening was required to clear the view of the bridge. It was well worth the effort as it really captures the wonderful combination of the beautiful Burmese scenery with the railway legacy of the colonial era. Two runpasts gave us ample opportunity to give the shot our best efforts.

YC629 passes the stupa at Payagyi

YC629 passes the stupa at Payagyi

We re-boarded our train at 4.25pm for the ride to Bago, passing through Shwehle (4.50pm) en route to a box-girder bridge over the Bago river where we spent about half an hour (5-5.30pm) trying to make the most of the last light of the day. Our train reached Bago at 6.15pm.

It has been a thoroughly enjoyable day, despite the absence of blue skies, with everything running incredibly smoothly. Once again it was rounded off with a superb array of food at Royal Taste (Bago). Tommorrow we head away from Bago, beginning the three-leg journey towards Mottama.

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All the way to Waw

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 10, 2017

A forecast of light cloud prompted a slightly slower start today, with the group leaving the hotel at 7.30am for the short drive to Bago station.

Today’s plan would see us use two locomotives – the first, YD967, would be used on a re-creation of the old mixed passenger trains to Nyaungkhashe, but only as far as Waw (the line beyond Abya can no longer take a train). The second locomotive, YC629, would be used for a short run in the afternoon to help us get a shot that we missed yesterday, but more of that later!

YD967 approaches a quintessentially British bracket signal at Bago

YD967 approaches a quintessentially British bracket signal at Bago

Our photographic endeavours began with efforts to capture the movement of our two locos in the yard at Bago, including both false and real departures. As there is a 5mph speed limit out of the station these were relatively slow affairs, but still looked splendid against the marvellous colonial signalling infrastructure here.

In addition to our steam hauled trains we had the opportunity to watch some of the regular traffic, including a two carriage railcar RBE 2590 ‘College Town’ which is another import from Japan. A batch of these Kiha 48 class DMUs arrived from Hokkaido around 2012, having been made redundant by line electrification, and were re-modelled for use in Myanmar in 2013. Although there is plenty unchanged about the railways here, for now, you can certainly see the direction things are moving.

Around 9am we moved on to the next position – the bridge over the Bago river. Our comfortable tourist buses could only take us so far, necessitating a switch to a local truck-bus. I took the ladder to get a spot on the roof and was rewarded with a hairy and bumpy ride. Along the way we had to lift up low hanging telegraph wires so that we could pass underneath and got the occasional thrashing from branches overhanging the road. Once we got our feet back on the ground we only had a mildly terrifying bridge to cross standing between us and a superb viewpoint with local fishermen and bamboo floating in the water. I was glad it was worth the effort!

YD967 crosses a bridge over the Bago river

YD967 crosses a bridge over the Bago river

Our tourists buses took us on to Ka Li station where we had some fun with arrival, boarding and departure shots. No stone had been left unturned in the preparations for this trip, including the local passengers on our train who were being paid for their presence. So, the resulting shot of passengers waiting for their train to arrive is not quite what it seems but a good deal more fun. One of the ladies even insisted on a quick make-up session before we called the train for the shot!

We joined our local passengers for the onward journey, with a shot at another bridge before our arrival at Naung Pattaya at 12.30pm. An extended wait here, for a diesel hauled freight train to cross, gave an opportunity to take some shots of the local scenery and admire the neatly maintained equipment (such as the hand-operated lever at the points which was stamped McKenzie & Holland, BR Worcester, England 1909).

After the diesel freight (a stone train) passed through we turned our hand to a few more shots on the run to Waw. Our train arrived at the station at 2.40pm and we departed by bus soon after, with our local passengers, ready to transfer to our second train of the day.

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Steam to Pyuntaza

Posted in Bago, Myanmar, Pyuntaza by folkestonejack on January 9, 2017

The tour started in earnest today with a re-creation of a steam hauled passenger train over the main line from Bago to Pyuntaza. Our loco for this journey was YC629, one of ten 4-6-2 heavy passenger locos of this class built by the Vulcan Foundry in 1947 for the metre gauge railways of Burma. As a loco regularly assigned to trains on this stretch in the era of real steam it looked wonderfully authentic.

Our loco for the day - YC629

Our loco for the day – YC629

The appeal of running charters on the network here was easy to see when we took a little wander down the tracks at Bago. The signal boxes and semaphore signals all hark back to the colonial era and give the railway incredible character. Everything surrounding this infrastructure was also remarkably photogenic, even down to the pig that had been tethered to the buffer stops!

Nevertheless, the window for photographing the system as it stands today is narrowing – a contract to upgrade the signalling across the country has been signed and work is already underway.

Our steam passenger, hauled by YC629, at Kadok

Our steam passenger, hauled by YC629, at Kadok

Everywhere we stopped today we were met by friendly, though sometimes bemused, faces as the normality of life was disrupted by our steam charter. More often than not we were the subject of curiosity rather than our splendid loco, which may help to explain why the locals are sometimes looking in the ‘wrong’ direction in the photos we took!

To begin with we were following the tour in our buses, stopping either at photospots identified in advance of the trip or on the fly when a bit of local colour presented itself. Just such an opportunity arose early on when we spotted a 12 man road gang armed with spades smoothing freshly laid concrete on the Yangon-Mandalay Highway. Sadly, by the time our train appeared the work was finished and the road gang had already moved on to their next job…

The Yangon-Mandalay Highway undergoing road-widening works at Maing Ton as YC629 passes through

The Yangon-Mandalay Highway undergoing road-widening works at Maing Ton as YC629 passes through

The day was saved by a group of local women who kindly volunteered to step into the foreground for us and by one of our number who took on the role of traffic policeman – stopping lorries and motorbikes well short of the level crossing to keep the scene clear. The hidden effort that goes into some shots!

Around 10am our train reached Kadok and was pushed back into a siding to allow the express to overtake. In the meantime we had plenty of time to kill, but also plenty of local colour to photograph. Most memorably this included ox and cart trains that looked as though they belonged a century or two back.

The first part of the ox and cart train at Kadok

The first part of the ox and cart train at Kadok

Once the express to Mandalay had passed (at 10.48am) we had the opportunity to stage a false departure for our train and try some shots around the level crossing before continuing on to Pyuntaza by bus (arriving at 12 o’clock).

Although we have only a morning of photography in the bag I can already say that it really is rather magical to see steam restored to the metre gauge railways of Burma.

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Blessing in Bago

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 8, 2017

A relatively relaxed transfer by bus took us to Bago in around two hours, having found ourselves ensnared by a little of the notorious Yangon traffic along the way. The ride provided a good opportunity to catch up with some familiar faces and to appreciate the shift from urban to rural Myanmar.

The route gave us a brief sight of Taukkyan Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery with its familiar cross of sacrifice and stone of remembrance. The cemetery contains 6,374 burials from the Second World War and the names of some 27,000 soldiers who have no known grave are inscribed on the Rangoon memorial.

The temple at the back of our hotel in Bago

The temple at the back of our hotel in Bago

Our destination, Bago, turned out to be a bustling but somewhat scruffy provincial town but in its time this was the capital of the Mon kingdom. We got a few glimpses of the golden legacy as we drove in to town. The sights of the Bago Archaeological Zone are the lure for many visitors but for others it is simply a convenient stopping point on the 8 hour plus drive to Mandalay.

Bago may not remain a sleepy backwater for long as plans for the construction of a major international airport are close to approval, taking advantage of an unconstrained site (Yangon airport has no more room to grow). Hanthawaddy International Airport has a projected opening date of 2022 and will eventually be able to cope with 30 million passengers a year.

However, our reason for being here was rather different. Until steam came to an end in 2008 the principal steam shed was at Bago (and will be again for our steam revival). After settling in to our accommodation we made our way to the station to see monks bless the three locomotives for our tour and accept our offerings. Quite apart from this, the station at Bago was a spectacle in itself with some marvellous platform stalls and a real sense of being at the centre of local life.

Standing in the shadow of giants

Standing in the shadow of giants

In no time at all the light faded and we made our way to a local restaurant for a taste of Burmese cuisine (including a surprisingly tasty dish of dried eel). It has been a good day, but I reminded myself that we have yet to see any of our three locos turn a wheel under their own steam!