Picture a busy intersection in a Southeast Asian city, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by motorbikes revving and swerving through the traffic. Not in Yangon, though.
Myanmar’s largest city banned motorbikes in 2003, making it fertile ground for building affordable and reliable public transport. For the first time in its modern history, the country is developing a long-term plan for public transport, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, U Win Khant, tells GovInsider.
“We are trying to develop an efficient, modern, safe and environmentally-friendly transport system,” he says. GovInsider looks at how the country is restoring rail demand, modernising state-owned operators, and introducing regular bus services for the first time.
Myanmar’s rail infrastructure has fallen into despair due to a lack of maintenance. “Rail lines are under-invested,” U Win Khant notes. The Yangon-Mandalay railway line was once the country’s backbone, but now buses and cheap flights dominate, with trains carrying only 10% of intercity demand.
The country is working with the Japanese Government and Asian Development Bank (ADB) on projects to improve infrastructure and management of the public transport. “It’s a clear priority of the government to revitalise and modernise their railway system, so that in the long term they have a significant role in the transport sector,” says Adrien Veron-Okamoto, Transport Specialist, ADB.
The 600km Yangon-Mandalay line is being renewed with a US$232 million loan from Japan. The upgrade will cut the rail journey from 24 hours to about nine hours, when completed in 2021-22, making it the country’s “biggest success” in public transport, the permanent secretary says,
Overall, Myanmar’s transport sector needs investment worth US$60 billion over the next 15-20 years, according to the government. But U Win Khant believes that “the government cannot fulfill our requirements”. Current budgets merely cover about a third of the total investment needed in public transport, he adds.
“The government cannot fulfill our requirements”
To bridge the gap, the government must forge partnerships with new countries and companies, he believes. “We are now trying to invest in many areas as PPP [public-private partnership] projects.”
Such support has traditionally come from China, but “we are very much eager to cooperate with the west,” he says. “If we just rely on one country, it’s not very good for our future.”
In particular, the government is working with the Asian Development Bank to cut costs for the state-owned Myanma Railways and turn it into a profitable business. The company is in “urgent” need of modernisation”, U Win Khant says. Such state-owned companies are spending “a lot” of the government budget, but have “very low service” levels, he adds.
An ADB report found that the Myanma Railways spends nearly double of what it earns through fares. The company incurs “significant expenses” to operate run-down wagons and coaches, for instance, as they need more fuel and frequent repairs.
The government is working with ADB to look at a “corporate restructuring” of the railway company, and identifying profitable services from those running at a loss, the Bank’s Veron-Okamoto says. They also plan to use technology systems to improve the maintenance of carriages and tracks.
A ride around Yangon
Yangon’s motorbike ban creates demand for cheap and convenient public transport – but the city’s ageing bus and rail services mean that car ownership could increase by ten times if unchecked. Already, travel times have doubled or tripled, and public transport operators have lost up to 65% of the market.
Major investments are underway. Japan has lent another US$231 million to upgrade the colonial-era Circular Railway line which loops around the city. For decades, its rickety carriages have been one of the cheapest ways to commute in Yangon, primarily serving poorer residents. The upgrade will improve nearly every major component of the railway, including engines, coaches, tracks and signalling systems.
Yangon is also considering plans to build two mass rapid transit lines, cutting across the city from north to south and east to west. “These two projects are very prominent for our new ideas for Yangon’s public transport,” U Win Khant explains. “If we can promote the Circular Rail and an efficient mass rapid transport system, it can be meaningful for our environment,” he adds. He hopes that the metro lines will also be funded by the Japanese.
“If we can promote the Circular Rail and an efficient mass rapid transport system, it can be meaningful for our environment.”
Regular buses for the first time
While Yangon’s rail lines are being renewed, the city’s bus services have already been upgraded. In 2017, the government purchased over a thousand new Chinese buses and reorganised 300 privately-run lines into 79 planned routes. For the first time, commuters have regular timetables, fares and routes, and drivers a reliable salary.
However, the government will need to also reform bus licensing and service contracts to deliver sustained improvements in service quality and reliability. Ideally, the city transport authority would collect the revenue, with bus companies competitively bidding for contracts, recommends Steven Lewis-Workman, Senior Transport Economist at ADB. This would allow the city to monitor service levels, because companies would be compensated based on the frequency and punctuality of the services, rather than the number of passengers they carry.
Unlike Yangon, the country’s second city Mandalay is a quintessential motorbike city, posing a very different challenge to civil servants. Here, public transport has a “very small market share” to start with, and is largely informal, Veron-Okamoto says. Thanks to a grid layout, the city has “plenty of capacity and little congestion”, but if left unchecked, could be “on its way to becoming similar to, for instance, Vietnamese cities”, he adds.
The government wants to step in early to nip congestion in the bud before it becomes a problem. “We are undergoing negotiations with Korean friends to develop a feasibility study for Mandalay, regarding urban transport development programmes”, says U Win Khant. The government could start with introducing “modern bus services”, he adds.
Keeping up with tech
Myanmar is also seeing “very quick changes” in the use of digital in transport, with mobile phones becoming a “basic commodity”, Veron-Okamoto says. Grab has become widely popular in Yangon, and is one the most convenient ways to get around. The ride-hailing app gets 25,000 bookings a day, and plans to spend US$100 million to expand services in the country over the next three years.
The government is keen to keep up, but needs assistance. “We need more smart and more high technology investment here in Myanmar,” the transport permanent secretary says. For instance, Yangon is installing GPS sensors to monitor its bus fleet, but the system is “not yet at the level that is needed to make a big difference”, Veron-Okamoto points out. The government will need private sector support to make the best use of the data it is collecting.
“We in Myanmar are at least five decades behind our friends,” the country’s transport chief says – but it’s not nearly too late. The government has a unique opportunity to rebuild public transport. All that’s needed is to cut excesses, plan ahead, and learn from others.