The first railway in what was then the British colony of Lower Burma opened in 1877 between Rangoon (Yangon) and Prome (Pyay), a distance of 163 miles (262 km). Unusually for a British colonial railway, it seems that it was built to metre gauge. Subsequent development was to the same gauge, and by the early 20th century there was a network of almost 2000 miles (3200 km) in Lower and Upper Burma. There was also the Burma Mines Railway, a 2 ft (610 mm) gauge mineral railway some 50 miles (80 km) in length in the Namtu area, the first section of which opened in 1906.
The Japanese invasion of the country during the Second World War caused considerable damage to the rail network; as part of their program of reconstruction they instituted the construction of the famous, or rather infamous, Thailand - Burma Railway using the labour of Allied prisoners of war, many of whom lost their lives.
Further damage to the railways was caused as the Allies retook the country from the Japanese and at the end of the War only about 1085 km of line remained operational, in four isolated sections. The costly “Death Railway” link with Thailand fell into disuse and the section of this line in Burma was permanently closed, but the remainder of the Burmese network was rebuilt over the next couple of decades. In the 1970s further activity led to the construction of new lines and the present day network is around 4800km in extent.
The operations of the Burma Mines Railway have been largely taken over by road vehicles but sections are still operable, and retain functioning steam locomotives. Access is restricted to prearranged escorted visits.
In 2016 a tram route opened in Yangon (Rangoon), on a former heavy rail freight route through the city streets. Rolling stock is a three car train purchased second hand from Hiroshima, Japan; it is standard (1435 mm) gauge, and a third rail has been added to the line to accommodate it.
Apart from the Thailand - Burma Railway there have never been any international links, but in 2018 a feasibility study was initiated for a new 430km line from Mandalay to Muse on the Chinese border. The line would be constructed to standard (1435 mm) gauge and would in part follow the route of an existing metre gauge railway from Mandalay to Lashio. At Muse it would connect with a new line being constructed in China.
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