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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Myanmar Rolls Out First Streetcar

Feb. 9, 2016

Transit authorities in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, have decided to use streetcars from Japan to reduce congestion. People in the Southeast Asian country are hoping the shift toward democracy will speed up economic growth. But rising prosperity means more private vehicles on the streets -- and worse traffic jams.

Commuter trains have a negative image in Myanmar. People see them as slow and inconvenient. Only one percent of commuters in Yangon use railways.

Many prefer to go to work by car or bus and that leads to major traffic jams. Congestion makes it hard for people to get where they're going on time, which can be bad for business.

“I have to drive about an hour now to get to places I used to reach in 30 minutes," says one driver in the city.

Streetcars could be a solution. The authorities have decided to build the country's first electric streetcar network.

The tram is scheduled to run about 6 kilometers along the harbor. Officials of Myanmar's national railway are hoping to ease the traffic jams by eventually extending the line to connect it with the city's diesel train line.

Workers started to electrify the rail network last year. They modified sections of old rail to handle electric cars.

A Japanese company provided technical support for the construction of a new substation that supplies electric power to the trams.

The streetcars are far from new. They had been in service in Japan until about a year ago. They were made around 1960 for the Hiroshima Electric Railway.

There are still signs and displays in Japanese inside the streetcar. This is deliberate because many people in Myanmar associate Japanese products with safety.

Atsuhiko Tsutsumi works for Hiroshima Electric Railway. He went to Myanmar to provide technical support for the project. He provides basic guidance to the staff of Myanmar Railways, including how to maintain the streetcars.

“Back in Hiroshima, we conduct monthly inspections when we jack up the carriages and oil the parts," Tsutsumi explains to the workers.

He emphasizes that regular maintenance is important to avoid accidents.

Besides demonstrating how to keep the streetcars in good working order, Tsutsumi teaches local staff how to drive them.

The streetcar’s driver, Htay Aung, is getting used to his new job, thanks to Tsutsumi's guidance.

“People in Myanmar are eager to learn,” Tsutsumi says. “Today's first ride is just the beginning. I hope they can hone and upgrade their skills as a railway operator."

Two months after the trial run, a ceremony is held to mark the launch of the new streetcar service.

“Our country now uses electric streetcars,” Myanmar's Rail Transportation Minister Nyan Tun Aung says at the event. “A new age has begun."

The first train leaves at 7:30 a.m. A ticket costs 10 cents -- half the diesel train fare. That makes it affordable for everyone.

Many people are on hand to check out the air-conditioned streetcar.

“I've seen electric streetcars in movies, but never expected to ride on one in Myanmar," says one passenger.

Htay Aung is now in the driver's seat, after being trained by Tsutsumi.

“It was a smooth ride thanks to support from Japan,” Htay Aung says. “I hope we put more railway lines in operation and that someday we see high-speed trains running as well."

Trams are now running in Yangon, and Japanese experts are helping to drive the city's new tram system.