The International Steam Pages
The Burma Mines Railway 1999
Click here for some pictures of the Burma Mines Railway in the 1970s.
I had previously tried to visit the Burma Mines Railway, but had found it impossible to gain access (see Steamy Burma Days 1997). So, given that it was one railway which I had always wanted to visit, I paid more for 5 days travel than I had done for the whole of my three previous visits (totalling nearly 3 months) to satisfy my craving. I flew from Phnom Penh to Bangkok from the Indochina Steam Adventure and immediately on to Yangon sharing a flight with the incoming TEFS party. While they relaxed and prepared to fly to Mandalay, I instituted an economy drive. I stayed with my friends at the Mayfair Inn off Merchant Street (air-con room U$10 single including breakfast) and the next day they fixed me up with a bus north and the medicine to recover from a dose of Pol Pot's Revenge. If you are unfamiliar with this railway, click here for some background information.
I had arranged to meet the party at the clock tower in Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo) at 07.00 on November 21st. My travelling went very smoothly; comprising taxi to Yangon Bus Station (500K), air conditioned bus to Mandalay (including dinner, midnight snack and light breakfast 2000K) and shared taxi to Pyin Oo Lwin (1000K) making a grand total of just U$11 door-to-door! To which needed to be added lunch (U$1), dinner (U$2) and my Guest House opposite the rendezvous which was overpriced at U$4. Not to mention the odd beer at U$1 now I was feeling better.
At least I got more sleep than they did as they had left Mandalay long before dawn. Journey time to Lashio including a stop at Gokteik and refreshments was about 6 hours. The journey on to Namtu took a further 4 hours - considerably quicker than an earlier trip, apparently because the road had been sealed near to Namtu.
Namtu is a security area and restrictions were placed on our activities, notably that we were not allowed to visit or photograph the smelter area. Otherwise, we were to be given total co-operation in running our special passenger trains. Having tried to visit here independently (and failed), I regret to say that you will only get here with an official tour.
Monday November 22nd
This was a public holiday and so normal operations were curtailed giving us effectively a free run of the line up to Tiger Camp and beyond. First we visited the railway shed/workshops.
Outside were four 'preserved' locomotives - incomplete freshly painted hulks of 14 and 16 (Kerr Stuart Tattoo class) and 34 and 40 (Kerr Stuart Huxley class). In the bushes were more boilers and various other junk. Day to day line work is in the hands of 6 wheel diesels, principally from Diema and Orenstein and Koppel, but including a 1996 Chinese example. Many of these were derelict or dismantled but we were told that there were potentially nine runners.
More importantly, brewing up in the shed yard was 0-4-2T 13 (Kerr Stuart Huxley class, 2383/1914). This was attached to two locally made coaches which were to convey us for the duration. We set off at 08.30 just as the mist cleared to leave a brilliantly sunny day. Preceding us hauling another coach was a Hino road-to-rail conversion - this contained vital rerailing equipment which, in the event, was not required and a large number of Burmese returning to their homes up the valley.
Our ultimate destination was Bawdwin, but initially we were heading for Tiger Camp 7 miles and 800 ft higher up than Namtu. Almost immediately we left the main river and started to climb up a narrow valley with a rushing stream which was grey with mine waste. There were a number of small bridges and we were able to make several stops for runpasts as we went up. Eventually we reached the major feature of this part of the line which is a full spiral where we were able to film till we dropped. Following us up were a train of empties behind an OK diesel and a Wickham trolley with our lunch which made for photographic variety.
After lunch, we continued upwards to Bawdwin, another 4 miles and 500ft. Steam had been vetoed for this section, which started with a mile long reverse and then continued a twisting path along the side of the hill in a manner which reminded several of us of the Matheran Hill Railway in India. After brief hospitality, we were bussed up the Marmion shaft, a section of line which appeared out of use. We were shown the opencast mining and the electric winding gear for the shaft which was of British origin dating from 1925. Return to Namtu was by diesel and then Hino and uneventful.
Tuesday November 23rd
Again we had a day of perfect weather. Initially we had a short run (with obligatory runpasts) east to the location of the original 'mill' which was destroyed during the Second World War. Some pillars etc are still standing, but more importantly, the area around it was still clear (heavy metal residues no doubt) giving us a marvellous view across to the town, the site of the present smelter and the hills behind.
We returned to Namtu and, while the train was turned and the loco watered, we adjourned to a nearby teashop for beer and noodles and 'white orange' which was a sort of watered down Cointreau. We then ran up to Tiger Camp again, I tended to ignore the runpasts as we were now travelling in the middle of the day. After lunch we were treated to what was, for me, the photographic highlight of the trip so far, namely 13 shunting two ore carriers under the hoppers and then loading them in the manner in which it could have been done 50, 60 or even 70 years ago.
We concluded our visit by watching the underground electric railway at work (a Clayton locomotive was in use), including tipping the ores skips, then returned with 13 in the late afternoon to Namtu. Throughout the two days, the local staff went out of their way to satisfy our every whim, amazing since they had had no previous experience of catering for a group of railway enthusiasts but perhaps not totally surprising given the natural hospitality of all the peoples of this diverse nation which I had experienced on previous visits.
Wednesday November 24th
While the Namtu to Bawdwin section is quite busy, the line from Namtu to Namyao is only used a few times a month for finished product - we were told that coal for the smelter came from China by road. Annual lead production is of the order of only 2000 tonnes and this goes out in trainloads of just 36 tons in 2 vans. The whole mine complex employs several thousand people (even the railway has 300 employees) and despite its isolation Namtu is a town of substantial size. Back in 1996 on my first recent visit to the country there was much talk of an Australian consortium taking over operation and bringing much needed investment, but it would appear that, whatever the reason, things are carrying on in much the same way as before.
We were to ride the line (diesel hauled) with the idea that Bagnall 2-6-2 42 would be in steam at Namyao to greet us. We left Namtu at 08.00 with two mineral wagons and two coaches. Progress was necessarily slow as the track is in poor condition and in due course we derailed as confidently predicted by the tour leader. Jacks were quickly in place and we only lost half an hour. We had a refreshment break at Nahsai where we cleaned the local shop out of Chinese beer before reaching Namyao at 14.00. 42 was alive and well and looking a lot cleaner than I saw it in 1997. We were treated to a display of shunting and a couple of run pasts in the small section of track that was both serviceable and sunlit. Half the group (including myself) left via the viaduct to Namyao station and on to a temple a couple of miles south and so on to Lashio by bus. The rest retreated by train to Nahsai for a longer bus journey to Lashio.
Thursday November 25th
I concluded my own participation in the tour by travelling from Lashio to Maymyo. Some of the group went all the way by train, others like me (because I had ridden the line before) had a lie-in to 06.00 and caught up the train near Hsipaw. We all rode over the Gokteik viaduct, 2 hours late owing to locomotive problems. Photography was restrained owing to official prohibition and one member of the party spent a long time in the toilet to ensure an unhindered view.... The track bashers continued by train to Mandalay, the rest took the faster bus and I retired for a cold beer in Maymyo, mission accomplished.
So was it worth the money? A good question and different people would have different answers. The authorities here seem well aware that they have a premium product and are keen to exploit it to the full. I have absolutely no regrets about 'biting the bullet' and paying a premium price for a great experience. I am sure other serious railway enthusiasts would feel much the same way, reflected in the fact that the first two tours here were totally sold out. On the other hand, I imagine that for me and most others this would be a 'one-off' which would not be repeated.
People's Bawdwin Industry is the current title for the Burma Mines. The Shan States are located in the hilly far north-east of the country, adjoining China. Centuries-old abandoned silver mines were discovered when the British took over the area in 1886. Although most of the silver had gone, the huge slag tips were found to contain lead, zinc and copper which could be profitably recovered if cheap transport to a smelter could be organised. The main line reached Lashio in March 1903 and the Burma Mines, Railway and Smelting Co Ltd was promoted in March 1906, to lease the mines and smelt the slag ore. A 50 mile long 2ft 0in gauge railway through difficult country would connect the old mines to the Lashio line at Manpwe, from where the slag would go to Mandalay where a smelter would be built. Construction work was by 5 Dick, Kerr & Co locomotives hauling 4-wheel tippers from Wantage Engineering, but heavy monsoon rains caused unstable track and progress was slow.
The Tiger Camp mining area was reached at the end of 1908 and three North British 0-6-0s took over the main line haulage. With a wheelbase of only 6ft, 20 tons loco weight and 10 tons tender with 12in x 16in cylinders, they were masters of the 5 ton wagon fleet. Namtu became the railway headquarters, 38.4 miles from the Lashio line. Workshops here were soon building their own wagons and overhauling steam locomotives. Although only 2 miles directly from Tiger Camp, Bawdwin Mine itself is 500ft above and 5 miles of tortuous climbing including 2 reversals, deep cuttings and embankments which prompt bad landslips in the monsoon season - but bullock carts on the narrow tracks (still visible from the train) could be abandoned a last.
Avoiding the long haul to Mandalay, in December 1911 a smelter came into use at Namtu and a second 6 months later. With the ancient slag almost exhausted, fresh ore was now mined at Bawdwin and brought to Namtu by rail. 5 Kerr, Stuart locomotives came to the line around 1914 and three more NB 0-6-0s in 1916 brought the stock to 19 on the line (some locomotives had been transferred from the Mandalay smelters). The exchange point with the main line was diverted from Manpwe to Namyao in 1915, crossing the Namyao River on a long tall viaduct. Bogie wagons were built at the Namtu workshops, with further stock imported from India to improve line capacity, using vehicles of 17/18 ton capacity. Passenger services commenced to serve the vastly increased workforce, between Bawdwin Mine and Tiger Camp and from there to Namtu and on to Namyao serving the intermediate villages. From the start (and to this day) all passenger services were provided free of charge.
After the First World War, the local Burma Corporation Ltd took over operations. 100 wagons came from the American Pressed Steel Car Co to cope with output from a new ore crushing mill and an electrified underground line came into use at Tiger Camp in 1921 to bring ore at deep level direct from the Bawdwin Mine to storage hoppers for gravity loading. 3 Bagnall 2-6-2s arrived in 1922 for mainline work and all 4 wheel wagons were withdrawn. The 1921 annual report showed some 25 locomotives in stock for various duties.
Using current names, tender locomotives worked Manpwe to Nahsai (19 miles / 13.6 miles after Namyao became the main line interchange point), changing here to other Namtu based tender locomotives. Tank engines operated Namtu (38.4 / 33) to Bawdwin (50.7 / 44.2). The passenger trains serve stations at Namyao, Pangleng, Whelung, Nahsai, Sookmun, Nampai, Nakhun, Kungteng, the site of the first smelter, Namtu, Lopah, Wallah Gorge, Tiger Camp, E.R. Valley and Bawdwin but not normally Marmion Shaft.
Steam locomotives were converted from wood to coal burning in 1925. Further track improvements enabled a 10 ton axleload to be adopted and a reversing spur in the Wallah Gorge was replaced by a double spiral to further speed up the services. By 1929 there were 3 superheated Bagnall 2-6-2s on the line and 5 more rebuilds to this design were made at Namtu workshops. Battery electric locomotives were now used for underground haulage, 3 0-4-4-4-4-0 GEC(US) 1920 built electric locomotives hauling ore to the overhead tippler/storage silos at Tiger Camp.
1930 saw peak traffic from the mine, but the World economic slump of 1932 saw 17 older or smaller locomotives withdrawn. Investment in track and infrastructure enabled operations to remain profitable until 1950 when the lease expired. Under local Ministry of Mines control no official figures are available since that date, but it was quite clear from my own visit to Namyao in late 1997 that the railway is quite run down, despite the delivery of some Orenstein and Koppel diesels in the 1970s. Kerr Stuart 0-4-2T 13 (2384/1914) and Bagnall 2-6-2 42 (2338/1927) are now thought to be the only serviceable steam locomotives left although there are undoubtedly enough parts lying around to return others to service if it was deemed necessary.
N.B. Burma still uses imperial miles to measure distances, roughly 5 miles = 8 km.