Over the last 150 years there has been real change in the way transportation works in Asia, with a mixture of different political regimes and international forces influencing travel. Consequently, the continent has become home to some seriously unusual railways that are still in operation today, and some hauntingly beautiful abandoned ones.
There are far too many examples to detail in one article, but this gives you an idea of the history that has shaped Asia’s railways and some specific suggestions of ones you will want to see.
The Burma-Siam Railway
This railway is probably the most famous, or rather infamous, in Asia; known as ‘Death Railway’ it is steeped in a dark and morbid history. It holds a socio-historical importance as well as a structural and engineering interest: built in the 1940s, it still stands today and parts can be accessed by visitors on foot as well as by train. The railway track was originally plotted by British colonisers but the scheme was quickly scrapped as those in charge realised that any potential benefit of the route was far outweighed by the treacherous terrain that would need to be navigated.
However, when Japanese forces took control of Burma in 1942 they needed to find an access to the country that did not leave them exposed to attack the way that water transportation did: they decided to build this railway. Using forced labour; prisoners of war and coerced local populations, the entire project was completed in 16 months. It is estimated that upwards of 100,000 people died in the process. Running over 600 miles, with several long span bridges, this was an astounding feat of engineering. However, despite the effort made it was used surprisingly little during the war, making it a strategic failure, as well as an immoral and illegal construction.
Today visitors can choose from various tours that will take them to see different parts of the route. The most visited part is the bridge over the River Kwai, which you can walk across, with a museum close by showing an eclectic mix of memorabilia from the creation of the bridge. Hellfire Pass, about 45 minutes away, offers some amazing views and a really sombre, yet sublime experience – thought-provoking in many ways and much less touristy than the River Kwai. Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is not far away for those wishing to pay respect to those who lost their lives in this undertaking.
India’s abandoned railways
India has a huge amount of abandoned and disused railway lines, most stemming from mass changes to the organisations governing transport in the twentieth century. In the 1840s there was no railways in India at all but with colonial influence mass construction took place in the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1920 there was nearly 40,000 miles of railway in India. By this time there had already been a multitude of changing hands and power struggles but the 1920s saw a need for centralisation and management was formally taken over by the government. 1920 – 1929 saw rapid economic growth and the railways were constantly under construction and changing. Then came the Depression, followed by the Second World War, both of which effectively crippled the railway, with funds and spaces now dedicated to the Allied war effort.
This ebb and flow, ultimately resulting in decay, meant that in the twentieth century many railway lines went under. Some of these got absorbed into other governing bodies and others fell into complete disrepair: of these, some sites have been paved over to make new roads or other transportation links. However, some of these sites have remains that still stand today, and these provide an eerie charm to the natural surroundings and are well worth a visit.
Kundala Valley Railway was India’s first monorail, in action from 1902 until it was destroyed by extreme flooding in 1924. Although a lot of this line has been lost, some paved over, and a corporate office stands where Munnar Railway Station once was, there are some hidden charms to be discovered if you follow the original track. Along its route, particularly at Top Station, you can discover old plaques, parts of track, remains of a locomotive, and an old railway bridge, now converted into a road. This is a beautiful countryside walk that is heightened by the sense of history and time that is evoked by these treasures.
Indonesia’s steam locomotives
The heyday of Indonesia’s railway was really the latter half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, when construction was relatively widespread. However, with the Japanese occupation and subsequent Indonesian War of Independence the railways were left in serious decline, and even today there is relatively little railway construction in comparison to neighbouring countries.
The entire network was initially reliant on steam locomotives; the move towards diesel began in the 1950s and by the 1980s the railway was almost entirely fuelled by diesel. However, there are some remaining steam locomotive railways, even ones that can be ridden by visitors, on original tracks. The best example of this is at the Ambrawa Railway Museum, which is home to the only remaining operable steam locomotives in Indonesia.
The museum, located in central Java, is focused on steam locomotives, although their collections encompass all manner of old technologies. Something unique to Ambrawa Railway Museum is that you can charter an original steam locomotive yourself, with an individual carriage or several adjoining coaches. This is an unbeatable experience: travelling on a magical old train in the lush tropical Indonesian surroundings.
Some other railways of interest
In such a vast and varied continent there are countless interesting and intriguing railways, as well as a plethora of journeys to be made, from the scenic and luxurious, to the cramped, authentic and sociable. Here I have tried to detail a few of the most unusual and note-worthy railways in Asia but of course this is a far from comprehensive list, it never could be. Below I have outlined a few more specific suggestions of things you won’t want to miss out on when undertaking a tour of Asia’s trains.
- If you’re in Vietnam you simply must check out the doorway railway of Hanoi. This has got to be seen to be believed; the train track is located on the doorsteps of houses and businesses in the old town district. Literally it squeezes through narrow streets, practically brushing the walls of adjacent buildings. This unusual and unique track is part of the daily life here, people sitting, standing, cooking, all simply move indoors nonchalantly as a train whizzes past.
- The abandoned railway Cau Giat – Nghia-Dan, in Vietnam, remains as an almost perfect example of preserved decay. The pre-WWII line and station still remain, although in disuse for decades. Both are clearly visible through the nature that attempts to reclaim the spaces; overgrown weeds and plants are abundant. It is an eerie yet charming site, and well worth a visit.
- If you’re interested in abandoned railways, Japan has some spectacular sites, set in truly stunning natural surroundings. There is a documentary called Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail, readily found online for free, in which an American couple give a detailed tour of several disused railways in Japan, which provide perfect cycling opportunities. Watch this documentary and feel inspired to recreate their journey: with some research, tours can be arranged at several sites.