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Building Better Train Stations for a Growing Myanmar City

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Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers.

In the political and economic opening of recent years in largely rural Myanmar, the population of its biggest city, Yangon, has begun to swell. Results are somewhat predictable: skyrocketing urban rents, growing suburbs, more cars on inadequate roads. Spine Architects' Amelie Chai, who moved to Yangon from New York a decade ago, remembers an era when a cell phone cost thousands of dollars and it took fifteen minutes to get to the airport. These days, people shell out single-digit amounts for sim cards and often spend over an hour en route to the airport.

Yangon's population has spiked from 2.47 million in 1998 to 5.14 million in 2011 and 7.3 million in 2014 with population growth largely focused in the suburbs. Residents do not live in the center of town, putting ever more pressure on roads and railways. If the 2.6 percent average rate of the last few years continues, the population of greater Yangon will be 11.73 million in 2040.

Such numbers call for titanic improvements in infrastructure and services, primarily public transportation. But as those large-scale plans are put in place, as consultants and think tanks opine and plan and the Asian development community aims for foreign investment and poverty reduction, Yangon's residents continue to commute to work on abysmal infrastructure.

Most commuters, around 80 percent, use city or corporate buses. Those who use the Circular Railway, which runs in a 45-kilometer loop around the city, face a long, languid commute—the train runs at 17 kilometers per hour in a circle that takes three hours to complete—and cheap tickets, ten to forty cents. Spine, Yangon's largest architecture studio, whose principals commute a stairway to their office and offer a bus for employees, would like the rewards to be a bit more tangible.

Yangon's circle line was planned in British Burma before the Second World War and built in the late fifties, according to Myanmar's Ministry of Railways, though the precise date of its construction is contested. What is clear is that in the years since, the government-run Circular Railway has chugged along with minimal aid. Recent efforts to privatize and invest in the operation, improving upon what exists, have met with alternate elation at the prospect of a speedy commute and nostalgia for the picturesque train. Indeed, says Chai, tourists often take the train, so apt of a relic is it. No improvements have happened and the approximately sixteen trains that run along the two tracks of the circle line continue to provide transportation to some 130,000 commuters each day.

Until the trains and tracks themselves improve, the Circular Railway's existing stations offer an opportunity to add to Yangon's infrastructure with small changes that reap larger rewards. Chai and her Spine partner and husband Stephen Zawmoe Shwe propose to add much-needed amenities to stations via a station extension they're calling TrackNet.

"We wanted the idea of a net coming from the existing structure, something that pulls away from it, but works with the existing structure," says Chai. "We want it to be contextual, to tie into what is there rather than just be an addition."

Spine's intervention would add amenities that currently exist at Yangon Central Railway station—a water station, charging station, and reading center for pamphlets and newspapers, along with a handful of new amenities—to every station. Such services are urgently needed: over a third of Yangon's residents lack running water, by some estimates, and nearly half of city residents live in informal dwellings, where they may have no access to electricity. And the Circular Railway's current ridership, says Chai, are among the city's lower-income residents.

Using steel beams and floors to create a parabolic extension from the bridges above various train stations, Spine envisions an open-air addition, sheltered from the elements by PVC-coated fabric stretched overhead. In addition to water, electric, and book stations, Chai and team envision an internet station, an advertising board for possible funding of amenities, a telephone, and an announcement board. While the circle line currently has no need for one—it runs in one direction in a continuous loop around a single track—if the international investment community's plans hold, the era of multiple trains on the Circular Railway may not be far off.

Until then, a simple, low-cost intervention like TrackNet would improve the quality of transportation with minimal investment, providing not only much-needed physical facilities but also carving out appealing public space for riders. Today, says Chai, riders often sit on the train tracks themselves while waiting to sight the slow train chugging toward them.

"It's very visible, and safe, too, since it's clear," says Chai. "It's an easy way for people to say, 'okay, we'll meet at the TrackNet.'"

Renderings by Spine Architects, with Su Yee Aung and Angel Lu.

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