As the circular railway train approaches Kyimyindine (formerly Kemmendine) Station, signal operator Ko San Win is ready for its arrival, having been notified by the discoloured electric telegraph system as old as the weathered station building.
Ko San Win is one of only a handful of people who know how to operate the point signals that switch the lines on Myanmar’s limited railway network.
It is impossible to change tracks with brute strength alone. It requires timing, experience and the right weather conditions.
As he does every day, Ko San Win signals the arrival of the train to the station master. Everything is OK. Until an automatic system is installed, Ko San Win will continue to play a crucial role. The Yangon-Pyay Railway line began operating on 1 May 1877. In 1876, 18 railway stations including Kyimyindine were built for the Yangon-Pyay Railway line. However, the station building was eventually replaced.
Fifty-two years after the world’s first railway line was built, steam locomotives from England began travelling the tracks to and from Kyimyindine. The Yangon-Pyay Railway was the first line in the country and was operated by the state-owned Yangon and Ayeyawady Delta Railway Company.
The railway station building that can be seen today was built in 1928. Although there were no records of the station’s construction, bricks dated from the year were found during repair work for damage caused by Cyclone Nargis. Despite its designation as a heritage building, the building has not undergone any special maintenance, only regular cleaning and painting.
Recently, it was announced that the historic station would undergo a major upgrade. Tenders have been invited for construction of shopping centres and warehouses. Eight acres of land have been allotted for the new development which will be carried out in three phases.
Priority will be given to installation of digital systems, new lines, security gates and signal systems at stations including Kyimyindaing, according to a railway official.
For the moment, however, Kyimyindaing Station operates as it has for decades. The station serves about 2,000 people a day including migrant workers and labourers from the far bank of the Kyimyindaing River. Many passenger use the station as a transit point for changing from train to buses.
A railway worker recently expressed concern about the upgrade works, particularly its impact on the heritage aspect of the station.
“The buildings are ancient. Ladders in flag boxes were manually made. Priority should be given to conservation of ancient buildings, even if high-rise apartments and car parking are necessary for modern lifestyle,” the worker said.
The worker said he and others had voiced their concerns through official channels, but had not received any response.
“We have given our opinion for a long time but there has been no response, although it has been said that the conservation tasks would be carried out with (Japan International Cooperation Agency) loans,” the worker said.
“It is also necessary to upgrade the operations of railway staff, as well as the status and dignity of the station.”
Tenders have been invited to build warehouses at Kyimyindaing Station, which will also eventually accommodate all warehouses currently at Yangon Station. In addition, the steel overpass of the station is deteriorating and the rickety overpass is in need of repair.
Among the voices calling for the station’s preservation is a 94-year old former railway worker.
“The history of Kyimyindaing Station cannot be separated from the history of railways in Myanmar,” the retired worker said. “While we are glad to see new developments emerging, the old station should be preserved for years.
“We can see ancient station buildings like Kyimyindaing Station in London today.”
Contemplating his uncertain future, Ko San Win described the signalling skills that make him indispensable for the time being.
“When it is too hot, railroads broaden and we have to be careful about the timing,” he said. “Sometimes, it is very difficult to lift up points and we have to do it manually.
“As I have grown up among the railway families, I am happy to work here.
“It is good news that new developments will be built and automatic systems will be installed, but we don’t know what will happen to us signal and telegraph workers.”
With new developments emerging in economic, political and social fields, it is important to balance progress with the needs of society, according to Deputy Minister for Culture Daw Sandar Khin.
“With new development, ideologies of citizens on heritage and society are undermined,” Daw Sandar Khin said. “We have to find equilibrium before going ahead.”