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The Building of Hellfire Pass

The Thai–Burma railway in operation

The main traffic centres on the line are spots of considerable activity, with reversing triangles and many locomotive shelters. They consist of usually well-dispersed spurs, on which trains are kept during the daytime as much of the traffic moves only at night

[Office of Strategic Services report, January 1945, quoted in Paul H. Kratoska (ed.), The Thai–Burma Railway, 1942–1946, Routledge, London, 2006, 56].

Rusted train engine
Show caption

When completed in October 1943, the Thai–Burma railway consisted of a complex system of infrastructure supporting train movements. In addition to the tracks, bridges, embankments and cuttings, the railway was made up of 63 named stations, depots and the trains themselves.

The headquarters of the 2nd Railway Administering Department was based in Bangkok, and was commanded by Major-General Ishida. It was from here that the operation of the railway was controlled and timetables were written.

The railway itself was divided into operating sections. Large stations containing workshops, depots, repair facilities and communication centres were placed at the end of each section. Turning triangles were constructed at some of the larger stations, such as Kanchanaburi in Thailand, which served as key bases for the railway.

Within sections were smaller stations and passing loops placed at most ten kilometres apart. These allowed trains running to a timetable to pass each other. Hintok station, around three kilometres from Hellfire Pass, was one such station and the clearing for the dual tracks of the turning loop are still visible today.

View of clearing through dense forest with remains of sleepers

Hintok station, not far from Hellfire Pass, was a typical station on the Thai–Burma railway. Here the track split into two to enable trains to pass each other. This photograph was taken in 2012 from the middle of the loop. Sleepers from one track are visible on the right. [Photo: Kim McKenzie] ... Enlarge photo of station remains

After it was constructed, the railway required significant numbers of men to maintain it. Around 9 000 Japanese remained on the railway, and were aided by about 22 000 Asian labourers. Prisoners were also used to maintain the railway and collect fuel, although most work was done by Asian rōmusha.

The Allied bombing campaign against the railway added to the maintenance work. Bridges were a particular target of Allied bombers, particularly steel bridges such as the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’. Prisoners based in nearby Tha Markam camp were engaged in repairing this bridge and another wooden replacement bridge. Bombsites are still visible along the railway.

The trains that operated were sourced from Japan and the territory captured in 1941–42: 52 came from Japan, 53 from Malaya, 30 from Burma and 7 from Java. Trains from Malaya and Burma were wood-burning and less powerful than the coal-burning Japanese trains. But they were easier to supply as they could be fuelled from local wood. These trains were allocated to the more gentle sections of the railway. They would pass their rolling stock onto more powerful trains when the railway reached more difficult terrain.

Rusted train carriages

Carriages such as these, now located in the vicinity of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, Thailand, were ubiquitous. [Photo: Kim McKenzie] ... Enlarge photo of carriages

In addition, the Japanese fitted railway wheels to diesel-fuelled trucks. These were useful for transporting maintenance parties or troops. One such truck was used by the Allied War Graves Commission survey party after the war.

By the end of the war around 100 of the original 142 trains were still in operation. Few survive today and the trains now installed at Kanchanaburi near ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and at the JEATH Museum are postwar locomotives.

During the war the railway operated only as a supply route. The frequency of the trains therefore depended on the needs of the campaign in Burma (now Myanmar). On their return journey from Burma, trains carried materials for shipment back to Japan. In addition to supplies for the Imperial Japanese Army, trains carried supplies for the maintenance of the railway and food for the labourers still working along the route.

After the defeat of the Japanese in Burma during the final months of the war, the railway was used to evacuate soldiers to Thailand, until its administration was taken over by the Allies after the war.