Burma, Communication 1908

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This article has been extracted from



Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.


The backbone of the railway system of Burma is a line which, start- ing from Rangoon, runs northwards, some distance to the east of the Irrawaddy and more or less parallel with its course, as far as Mandalay, and thence proceeds through the country lying to the west of the river, bearing generally to the north, Communications. and curving eventually eastwards until it reaches the river again at Myitkyina, the head-quarters of the most northerly District of Upper Burma. This line, which is 724 miles in length, traverses the greater part of Burma from end to end. A steam-ferry service across the Irrawaddy connects the southern with the northern section at Sagaing, a few miles below Mandalay. The southern (Rangoon-Mandalay) section sends out two branch lines. The first, 71 miles in length, leaves the main line at Thazi, about 80 miles due south of Mandalay, and passes north-west, through Meiktila, to Myingyan on the Irra- waddy. The second starts from Myohaung, a junction just beyond the southern limits of Mandalay city, and runs north-east 180 miles into the Northern Shan States as far as Lashio. A noticeable feature of this line is the steel viaduct, 1,620 feet in length and at its highest point 325 feet above ground, which spans the Gokteik gorge. The northern section of the main line has also two branches : one runs west- ward from Sagaing till it taps the Chindwin at Monywa and Alon (73 miles) ; the other is a minor feeder to the east, 15 miles in length, which terminates at Katha on the right bank of the Irrawaddy and serves to connect that station, as well as Bhamo, a little farther up- stream, with the main system.

The southernmost portion of this main line, which extends 166 miles from Rangoon to Toungoo, a frontier station in the days preceding the annexation of Upper Burma, was commenced in 1881 and completed in 1885. The Toungoo-Mandalay section was taken in hand shortly after the annexation of the Upper province, and was completed in 1889. During the same year a start was made on the extension northwards (known first as the Mu Valley State Railway), and the final section, which brought Myitkyina into direct railway communication with the south, was opened to trafific in 1899. The branch lines have been mostly completed since that year.

The oldest railway in the Province is, however, not a portion of the main line, but lies to the west of it, connecting Rangoon with Prome on the Irrawaddy. This railway, which was completed in 1877, is 161 miles in length. It runs in a north-westerly direction through the Pegu Division of Lower Burma. A branch line, completed in April, 1903, leaves it at Letpadan, about half-way between Rangoon and Prome, and runs to the left bank of the Irrawaddy opposite the town of Henzada. Here the river is crossed by a steam ferry, and the line proceeds on from Henzada in a south-westerly direction to Bassein (115 miles). From Henzada a line northwards to Kyangin (66 miles) is under con- struction. Moulmein will shortly be connected with Rangoon by a line which will take off from the Rangoon-Toungoo section at Pegu, and, crossing the Sittang, will pass down the eastern coast of the Gulf of Martaban to the nearest suitable point of the Salween opposite Moulmein. It will be about 120 miles in length, and its construction has been taken in hand. The construction of a railway from the Toungoo-Mandalay section of the main line eastwards into the Southern Shan States is in contemplation. The extension of the Northern Shan States Railway from Lashio across the Salween to the China border has for the present been abandoned. Sanction has, however, been given for the survey of a line from Bhamo towards Tengyiieh in the Yunnan Province of China, and arrangements have been made to obtain the consent of the Chinese Government to the survey being carried beyond the frontier between the two countries.

Till 1896 the railways of Burma were state lines. They were then taken over by the Burma Railways Company; and in 1897 a contract was entered into between the Secretary of State and the company which guaranteed interest at the rate of 2\ per cent, on the company's share capital of £2,000,000, and provided for the division between Govern- ment and the company of the annual surplus in the proportion of four- fifths to the former and one-fifth to the latter.

The total length of line open in 1891 was 609 miles ; in 1901 it was 1,178 miles, and by 1905 it had risen to 1,340 miles. There was then one mile of railway to every 176 square miles of country, and the average cost of construction per mile had been Rs. 94,392. The gauge is metre.

Railway communication has done much towards reducing the prices of imported articles in the remoter portions of the country. Scarcity is as a rule so partial in Burma that it is doubtful whether the railway will ever be called upon to play as important a part in combating famine as in less-favoured Provinces. There can be no doubt, how- ever, that it will prove very useful whenever there is a failure of crops on a large scale in the Districts liable to scarcity, which are, as regards rail communications, exceptionally well served. The railway is proving a formidable competitor of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which has practically a monopoly of the private carrying business on the inland waters of Burma ; but river carriage is, for various reasons, still preferred to rail by a large section of the trading community.

There are two steam tramways in the province. The first is 8 miles in length and runs from Duyinzeik, on the Donthami river in Thaton District, to Thaton, the District head-quarters. The capital cost of con- struction up to the end of 1895, the last year for which capital and revenue accounts were submitted, was nearly 4^ lakhs. By an agreement entered into between Government and the original owner in January, 1884, a subsidy of Rs. 1,000 per mile was paid for three years after the date of opening on condition that a proper service should be maintained, and for ten years Government kept up all the bridges on the line. From December i, 1900, the tramway passed into the hands of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. The receipts amounted in 1903 to Rs. 32,000. In all 34,362 persons travelled by the tramway during that year.

The other tramway is in Rangoon, and its construction and mainte- nance are regulated by the Rangoon Tramways Act (XXII of 1883). The cost of construction has exceeded 10 lakhs. Its working expenses and net earnings in 1903 were about i^ lakhs and three-fourths of a lakh respectively, and the return on capital is about 8 per cent. The number of passengers carried daily during 1903 was about 9,000. The line will shortly be electrified. An electric tramway on the over- head trolley system was opened in July, 1904, in Mandalay city. It is worked by the Burma Electric Tramways and Lighting Company, with a capital of £200,000 ; and its present length is 6 miles of double track. An application for permission to construct a light tramway from Mandalay to Madaya is under consideration.

Nothing is more illustrative of the march of events during the past fifty years than the difference in the principles on which the road systems of the two portions of Burma have been designed. In Lower Burma the two principal roads, from Rangoon to Prome and from Rangoon to Toungoo, cover practically the same ground as two main stretches of railway line which later conditions showed to be necessary on strategical as well as commercial grounds. Upper Burma, on the other hand, came into the occupation of the British at a time when railway- and road-building went naturally hand in hand. The railway there took the place of the trunk roads constructed in the early days of British authority in the Lower province, and the guiding policy of road-construction was to provide feeders for the railway and the rivers.

Railway expansion has enabled branch lines to be subsequently carried over ground covered by several of these feeders ; but from the southern limit of Yamethin District to Myitkyina in the north no considerable outlay has been incurred in the construction of communications that run in any way parallel with the main line of railway, and this policy has saved unnecessary expenditure which the conditions obtaining up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century rendered unavoidable in the Lower province. In Lower Burma, especially the deltaic portion, natural waterways have been largely used for communications ; but, with the extension of the railway system, feeder-roads are being provided to give access to new railway stations. In pursuance of this policy of affording approach to the main lines of river and railway communication, the Chin Hills have been connected with the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy by a system of cart-roads and bridle-paths from Kalewa and Pakokku as far as the Lushai Hills frontier, and similar action has been taken in the direction of the frontiers from Bhamo and Myitkyina. The Irrawaddy and the railway are now in touch with all important towns and trade centres, while on the navigable portion of the Salween and its branches several useful feeders have been completed in recent years.

In 1 89 1 the main road lines of the Province were the road running from Rangoon to Prome ; the road from Rangoon to Pegu, and thence in sections to Toungoo ; the road from Myingyan to Fort Stedman, passing through Meiktila and connecting the Irrawaddy with the head- quarters of the Southern Shan States ; and the road from Thabeikkyin to Mogok in the Ruby Mines District. A considerable portion of an important road from Mandalay through Maymyo to Lashio in the Northern Shan States, the precursor of the railway in the same direction, had been completed by the same year, when there were approximately 4,674 miles of road outside municipal limits in both portions of the Province, 1,110 of which were metalled. By 1901 the total length of communications other than municipal roads had risen to 8,999 niiles, of which 1,588 miles were metalled, but no important modification had been introduced into the road system of the Province, After the Mandalay-Lashio road referred to above, one of the largest undertakings completed in this decade was a mule track from Fort Stedman to Kengtung, then the remotest military station in the Province, which will shortly be superseded by a cart-road as far as the Salween, 228 miles from the railway. Another useful frontier track is that leading from Bhamo south-eastwards to Namkhan on the Chinese border, and an important work has recently been commenced in the shape of a road which crosses the frontier in Bhamo District and leads to Tengyiieh in Yiinnan. A road is under construction to connect the navigable water- ways near Moulmein with the Siam frontier, which is also reached by a road from Tavoy. In 1904 the total length of Provincial roads amounted to 9,369 miles.

The expenditure on land communications other than municipal in 1890-1, 1900-1, 1902-3, and 1903-4 was as follows : — -


Though much has been done in the way of road-making and mainte- nance, land communications in the interior are still defective. Many of the roads are mere mule-tracks, and a large proportion are practi- cally impassable during the height of the rainy season. In the wet Districts cart-roads are few and far between, but in the dry areas of Upper Burma country carts are able to move about freely at all seasons of the year. The Burmese cart is light but durable. Till recently the prevailing type of wheel in the rural area was of the solid kind, rough, often very far from circular, and highly destructive to the roads. This form of wheel has, however, of recent years been largely superseded by the spoked variety. On these wheels considerable labour and occasionally some little artistic skill are expended, in marked con- trast to the body and shafts, which are almost invariably of the roughest description. Tilts or covers of matting or thatch are common.

Burma abounds in rivers, streams, and tidal creeks, and the southern portion of the Lower province is a veritable network of natural water- ways. Thus in Lower Burma there has never been any pressing need for canals, and such artificial additions as have been made to the exist- ing water system consist generally of transverse (east and west) con- nexions of the streams that run southwards into the sea. The principal navigable canals are the Pegu-Sittang Canal, uniting the Pegu river and the Sittang ; the Twante Canal, forming a junction between the Irrawaddy and the Rangoon river ; the Sittang-Kyaikto Canal, a waterway running south-east from the Sittang into the western portion of Thaton District ; and the Shwetachaung Canal in Mandalay District. Work on the Pegu-Sittang Canal commenced in 1873-4, and the channel was opened in the beginning of 1878. The Twante Canal was begun in 188 1-2 and opened in May, 1883. The year 1882-3 saw the commencement of the work on the Sittang-Kyaikto Canal. This last was intended to form a portion of a larger undertaking, the^union of the Sittang and Salween rivers ; but the second section of this project, that between Kyaikto and Bilin, has been abandoned. The Shwetachaung Canal is an old Burmese irrigation work near Mandalay remodelled and used for navigation purposes. Tolls are levied on it and on the Pegu-Sittang Canal, but on no other of the navigation channels in Burma. The capital expenditure on the Pegu-Sittang Canal up to the end of 1903-4 was 44 lakhs, that on the Twante Canal 3 lakhs, and that on the Sittang-Kyaikto Canal 10 lakhs. No capital accounts are, however, kept for any of the navigation channels above referred to. Up to the end of 1903-4 the receipts from tolls on the Pegu-Sittang Canal aggre- gated 19-3 lakhs, against a total outlay of 58-6 lakhs. So far the realizations from tolls on the Shwetachaung Canal have been insignifi- cant and form a small portion only of the revenue from the work.

The British India and the Asiatic Steam Navigation Companies are the two regular lines which carry passengers coastwise within the limits of the Province. The British India steamers ply the whole length of the coast from Akyab to Mergui. The Asiatic Steam Navigation Com- pany's principal passenger work lies between Rangoon and Port Blair, but their boats visit other coast ports. Both these lines also connect Burma with Indian ports, and the British India boats run from Ran- goon to Penang and Singapore. Direct communication between Burma and Europe is kept up by the steamers of the Bibby line and the British and Burmese Steam Navigation Company (Patrick Henderson). The great bulk of the river steamer traffic is in the hands of the Irra- waddy Flotilla Company, whose boats and flats are familiar objects on nearly all the inland waters of Burma. This company owned (at the end of 1903) 45 river steamers and 75 other steamers of various descriptions, working over a length of more than 5,000 miles, and carrying nearly 2\ millions of passengers. The company employs over 7,000 persons, and its receipts in 1903 exceeded 81 lakhs. There are a few small private lines, but the Government, with its fleet of Indian Marine and local river-boats, is the only other river carrier of impor- tance. Native craft of all kinds ply on all the larger rivers. Ferries abound in all the river Districts. They are managed by Government lessees, who are required under the terms of their leases to conform to Government rules prescribing rates of tolls and other matters con- nected with the working of the ferries.

In the early days of British dominion in the Province postal arrange- ments were on a small scale. Government steamers and country boats were used largely for the carriage of mails in the interior. Postal com- munication between Rangoon and Calcutta, and Rangoon and Moul- mein, was fortnightly, and there was a mail once a month to Tavoy and Mergui. There are now three direct mail steamers weekly between Rangoon and Calcutta, and one between Rangoon and Madras. Steamers ply between Rangoon and Moulmein every other week-day, while all the other principal stations on the sea-coast are served once in seven days. The steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company carry letters at least weekly to the few river stations where the railway has not secured a daily service. From all the main centres District post lines radiate out into the rural areas, and there is no place of any com- mercial or administrative importance in Burma proper that the post has not placed in ready touch with the outside world. The first year for which postal statistics are available is 1862-3, when the total number of letters received and dispatched was 673,939, ^^d of other articles, such as parcels, books, and newspapers, 177,287. These totals had risen by 1878-9 to 1,286,990 and 393,835 respectively. In 1881-2 there were 55 post offices open in Burma. In 189 1-2 there were exactly 200 more; in 1900-1 the total was 299, and in 1903-4 it was 399. The table on the next page gives the main postal statistics for the years 1880-1, 1890-1, 1900-1, and 1903-4,

In 1881-2 the total of postal employes of all classes was 171. By 1903 the aggregate of the postal establishment had risen to 1,592, a figure which includes Imperial establishments only and does not comprise a host of rural postmen and peons employed on the Dis- trict post system whose services are paid for out of local revenues.


  • The figures for 1880-1 include the Andaman Islands.

See also

For a large number of articles about Burma, extracted from the Gazetteer of 1908 (as well as other articles on Burma) please either click the 'Myanmar' link (below, left) and go to Burma(under B) or enter 'Burma' in the 'Search' box (top, right).

Burma, Physical Aspects 1908

Burma, History 1908

Burma, Administration 1908

Burma, Commerce and Trade 1908

Burma, Communication 1908

Burma, Agriculture 1908

Burma, Population

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