The International Steam Pages

Freezing on the Death Railway, 2010

This is the fourteenth part of our 2010 Burma Crusade. Click here for the index.

Yuehong had her Malaysian visa, allegedly good for land entry, and we had booked our train tickets to Butterworth. We couldn't go immediately as it was still more than 30 days before we were due to return to the UK, so it was time for a pilgrimage, or more accurately what used to be a pilgrimage. We walked down to the nearby Marine Department pier and boarded the Chaophraya Express boat. Almost immediately we passed our guest house (note product placement - we had been out of sight on the third floor in the balconyless cheaper rooms), the adjacent Chinese temple and the former stationary steam engine workshop where we were pleased to see the old man alive and fishing. Except for the facade, the old Thonburi station is no more, sold to the huge hospital next door and for some time trains have started from the new station (Bangkok Noi) some 1km west which is a bit of a trudge in the middle of the day.  

There's no confusion about which was our train, actually there aren't many these days from this station. The "Thinglish" sign, though, took a little working out:

Some time back, the railway here decided that it was fed up feeding the profits of the tour companies who put people on their trains for the best parts of the 'Death Railway' and paid peanuts. Now we all have to pay a flat rate foreigner THB 100 just to board the train, hardly a huge sum given this line must operate at a massive loss, but probably several times what the locals pay, unlike every other train in the country. So to make sure we got our money's worth, we hopped next door where Yuehong posed with one of Thonburi's star locos, unfortunately the timing of Burma's election meant that we were too late by a week for the three steam specials (I've now posted a report from other visitors). After years of my complaining about rundown and dirty stock it was good to see 1969 vintage Krupp 3118 well cared for and even better to see one of the old General Electrics getting a makeover. Clearly it wasn't just the shed pet as there was a finished example nearby. Visitors are very welcome here, there are signs in English and even a free leaflet, but common courtesy is to first make yourself known in the shed office at the north-east of the site near the signal cabin.

The train left on time but effortlessly lost half an hour on its schedule and when we got to Tha Rua Noi after the junction at Nong Pladuk, we had a long wait to cross the afternoon train from Namtok - both were now well over an hour down. It was great to see traditional train control apparatus in use, but this line has no signalling and it seems they use radio these days. As there is no name on these token dispensers, I guess they are locally made. Alas 4210 was in a disgusting state as the token for the section onward was picked up on arrival and the light was awful.

I had warned Yuehong that Kanchanaburi would be a cross between a zoo and a circus so we dived into the nearest guest house down the small road opposite the station. It wasn't cheap, but it was brand new and, as seems universal these days, it had WiFi out front. The main bar, coffee shop and guest house strip which runs several kilometres all the way to the bridge started just 50 metres further on so we retreated back up the road for dinner. During the night it rained and the temperatures plummeted, at first light the locals were walking around with two coats on and told us it was most unusual which wasn't a great help as we had only T-shirt gear with us. Yuehong wrapped herself in a towel to prevent hypothermia, the look on her face said that naturally it was all my fault. There was a strange contraption in the station used on shuttles to the bridge, with five coaches behind (of which more anon) and also some new building going up which I would like to have thought would become some kind of railway museum but staff said a container depot...

This was Yuehong's first view looking back at 'The Bridge' - the cast of thousands of extras is almost invisible - later we leapt off the train as quickly as possible leaving the hordes to visit the stalls and eating places before 'doing the business'. I posed on the 'The Trestles' and finally, we had a quick look at the famous cave Buddha before setting out up the road for Wang Pho. It turned out that I had seriously underestimated the distance and we were glad of a lift from two ladies in a hotel 'Tuk Tuk'. All of which meant we minimised contact with the other tourists - to be fair they are a necessary part of the scene here as this area is obviously significantly poorer than those nearer Bangkok.

The train would be late (of course), the best estimate was about half an hour and that allowed time for lunch, the healthy option, soupy noodles. Afterwards, it was back to the station to check out their train control gear, this time it was the original British kit, badged for 'Westinghouse Brake and Signal' and 'Saxby and Farmer' - for the record, Kanchanaburi (detail below) has one of each the two types seen:

We hit the trestles at the regulation crawl and all down the train, the cameras popped out of the window. Many years ago - after my first visit ca 1974 - the original all-wooden trestles were renovated and concrete bases put in which allowed full sized diesels to work the line. As it is, there are signs of the cliffs above being unstable and further work has been done. At the resort at the end were three tastefully decorated tour buses, the rest of the journey was featureless, there is just the single cutting near 'The Bridge' which must have been hand excavated:

It was a longish train of 12 coaches, the front 7 of which were actually quite full of both locals and foreigners. The rear 5 which had been attached at Kanchanaburi were of the traditional wooden seated type and empty save for a high proportion of the underworked staff who were running a gambling school, Thai Railways still seems to be run as a giant job creation scheme. These coaches (which might just have seen some use during the recent Kanchanaburi two week festival) had all their blinds up and a ride of 'Burmese' quality. Given the state of some of the seats it was maybe just as well they were not in use and just who would have been mad enough to pay the premium fare advertised, I have no idea.

Enough carping, the temperature had risen a little and we were almost back, but first the train had to run the gauntlet of the assembled masses:

I couldn't resist posing with the local model railway club's scratch built Japanese style C56, before we paid our visit to the war cemetery, always a sobering moment, I had no known relatives who served in the Far East, but some graves bear floral tributes, presumably placed by those who had. As always with such places, it is immaculately and tastefully maintained and only a very small proportion of tourists come here which is just as well. 

 We had dinner nearby, there are not many places in the world where you can eat as well (and as cheaply) as this, watched over by a Beyer Garratt.

Next morning we took a bus to the bridge and came back on a pick up (5-10 Baht according to your bargaining skills). I'm deemed too old to wear such T-shirts any longer so I could only admire the artist's vivid imagination:

Not surprisingly, Yuehong was more interested in this modest memorial to the most unsung of the heroes of the Siam-Burma campaign, the thousands of labourers and soldiers of the Kuomintang, we had seen a graveyard for them on the 'Ledo Road' near Tipong in Assam back in 2008, that was, perhaps not surprisingly, unloved and heavily overgrown:

Finally, the regular train crossed the bridge, ever grubbier 4210 again at the front, it was followed twenty minutes later by the Saturday railcar which I chose to ignore. Not just because these creatures in their metallic finish are hideous but because we had to get back to the guest house to check out.

Finally, for those of you patient to have read this far this is your reward, the first is one I took of 737 in April 1974 and the second is Hugh Ballantyne's classic picture of 715 crossing the original trestles also around midday on 24th November 1975:

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson