Bridges, beriberi and bashings: The true story of the Death Railway

In a special ANZAC Day report, historian and tour guide Andrew Mason details the construction of one of the bloodiest railways in human history.


The Thailand/Burma Railway, or Death Railway, was a wartime railway built by tens-of-thousands of Australian, English, Dutch, American prisoners of war, along with at least 180,000 forced-labourers from South-East Asia.

Following numerous, significant naval losses at Midway, the Coral Sea, and elsewhere, Japanese command decided an overland route was required to supply the ever-increasing Nippon occupation and expansion in Burma, known to them as the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.

Some 2,710 Australians were among the 12,600 prisoners of war (POWs) who died building the railway, many from diseases, including malaria, pellagra, dysentery, beriberi, dengue fever and cholera. Others died directly from beatings and mistreatment by Japanese and Korean officers, or from complications arising afterwards. Others perished from tropical ulcers gained from toiling on the railway. Malnutrition was a key factor in the burgeoning death rate.

Beginning in Thailand at Ban Pong Station (about 60km north of Bangkok), the finished railway traversed 415km of terrain, before reaching Thanbyuzayat, in Burma (now Myanmar). It negotiated flat ground to begin with, then followed along the banks of the Kwai Noi River, through the Thai jungles and mountains.


Bridge over the River Kwai

Along that river was built the famous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’; now a household name due to the Academy Award-winning film made many decades ago. Lieutenant-Colonel Phillip Toosey was the British officer in charge of the work force and was well regarded by his men. Two bridges were in fact built there: a wooden one came first, followed by a steel bridge ‘borrowed’ by the Japanese from Java, which was completed in April 1943.

On November 29, 1944, the Allies bombed the bridge and the adjacent anti-aircraft battery. Bombs carried over to the nearby Tamarkan POW camp, killing 19 POWs. Similar bombings also occurred at the Non Pladuk Rail Yards, killing dozens of prisoners in the process.

At the bridge today you can visit the USA and Japanese Memorials (with the latter dedicated to all nationalities), examples of period locomotives and the site of the wooden bridge. The rectangular spans in the centre were replaced post war and indicate the spot where B24 aircraft accurately bombed it.

Bridge over river Kwai. Photo: Andrew Mason

This part of the river is in fact the River Mae Klong; Pierre Boulle, author of the book (1952) and screenwriter of the film (1957), disliked that name and therefore the River Kwai became part of the title. The section of river which includes the bridge was, in 1960, renamed as the Khwae Yai, as a result.


Hellfire Pass

Some of the regions worst monsoons occurred during 1943, and as the railway became behind schedule the infamous ‘Speedo’ period of construction took place.

This period pushed the POWs and forced labourers harder than ever, with incredible labour quotas, and long days and nights.

Hammer and tap men worked around the clock in Hellfire Pass – the largest cutting on the railway – where it was estimated around 400 men perished working in the granite mountain, carving a trace to allow the one metre gauge railway line to run.

Evidence of the Speedo is shown through the numerous cemeteries of Kanchanaburi, Chungkai and Thanbyuzayat, which host the men who died between July and September, 1943.


Tales of horror, courage and mateship

Treatment of the POWs during the railway’s construction was among the worst experienced by POWs in modern human history. In one example, ex-POW Alistair Urquart in his book ‘The Forgotten Highlander’ (2013), described the frightful acts of Japanese Lieutenant Usuki:

“The Black Prince, also known as the Kanyu Kid,” Urquart wrote. “He was the psychopath who had me tortured and thrown in the black hole. He beheaded one of my comrades in front of us. [He was] executed by the British in 1946 for war crimes.”

Photo: Australian War Memorial

In another incident, later adapted for the 2001 film To End All Wars, a counting of the tools was taking place at the end of a particular day’s work in a British camp, when the number came up short.

The Japanese guard in charge was said to have gone ballistic at the parade of men, threatening to bash and beat their front ranks, if an individual did not own up to the theft. When nobody claimed responsibility, Private Alistair McGillivray, a tough Argyll and Sutherland Highlander from the UK, was said to have come forward, to save his mates.

McGillivray was beaten by the guard until he fell to the ground, then more as he lay unconscious, until he was dead.

George Beard wrote in 2000: “Work on the railway continued, with demands by the Japs for labour so high that quite sick men were compelled to work 12 or 14 hours a day.

“We found the Korean guards employed by the Japs to be just as vicious, or even more so, than the Japs themselves.

“Hard long hours of heavy work, coupled with a starvation diet, saw countless fine young men die ugly, unnecessary deaths.

“Better food and basic drugs could have saved most. We forgot how to laugh, every day was an ordeal.

“We were all terribly frightened, and mates were all there to keep us sane and alive. At least one good mate was essential to survive.”


A significant construction

The train today travels from Bangkok all the way to Nam Tok Station; over the River Kwai Bridge, past paddy fields, crops and isolated Thai railway stations, to the Wampho Viaduct.

Typical clickety-clack sounds, rolling hills in the background, and old fashioned windows venting humid air-flow provide a suitable setting to reflect on a railway construction which claimed several-hundred thousand lives during the Second World War. As author Hugh Clarke said in 1986, “A life for every sleeper”.

Photo: Andrew Mason

There were six bridges built between the Hellfire Pass and Hintok areas (where D Force worked under the famous surgeon Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop). Local bamboo, teak, railway and dog spikes were used to construct the bridges, along with pulleys and locally-fashioned pile drivers powered by overworked and hungry POWs.

Three-tier Bridge at Hintok was infamous among many in the area. It was where the well-known ex-POW, the late Bill Haskell of D Force toiled, and later advised that ‘Billy the Bastard’ also preyed: a Japanese guard who allegedly took great delight in throwing tools from high vantage points onto workers below, and who didn’t mind pushing men off high bamboo scaffolding.

Haskell wrote: “In the last two months of 1943 the Japanese moved 17,000 tonnes over the railway. They moved an average of 11,700 tonnes a month for the first half of 1944, and 18,750 tonnes in the second half.

“The average dropped to 3,850 tonnes a month for the last eight months of the war. The grand total was 228,550 tonnes. After the war the British Army dismantled about 4kms of track on the Thai/Burma border.

“The remaining 310km in Thailand was sold to the Thai Railway Company for 1.25 million Sterling.

“Most was lifted but 140kms was re-laid as far as Nam Tok (Tarsau), which is now the terminus of the Death Railway.”

The Death Railway is still operational to Nam Tok; traveling over the famous steel bridge and across the Wampho Viaduct heading north as the originators intended.


Andrew Mason takes pilgrimages to the railway with his tour company. Read more at

A GrainCorp shed at the Port of Portland. Photo: David Sexton

GrainCorp calls for focused rail upgrades

Rail infrastructure at GrainCorp’s Calleen receival site in regional NSW will be complete by July, but the company’s chairman, Don Taylor, says the group is relying on the government to facilitate its ongoing upgrade program.

Taylor spoke last week as charity bike event Pollie Pedal visited Calleen.

“It’s fantastic [the event] could get out to Calleen as it represents the future of efficient grain handling in Australia,” Taylor said. “We are pleased to confirm the rail infrastructure on site will be operational by July.”

Construction of new rail infrastructure at the purpose-built site started late last year, with two 1500 tonne overhead rail bins currently being constructed.

Together, the overhead bins have a total capacity of 3000 tonnes, and can load a standard 40 wagon train in two hours, according to GrainCorp.

The system also features automatic sampling to support quality management and control.

GrainCorp’s southern NSW regional manager Sarah Roche said 110,000 tonnes of received grain at last harvest led the company to seek a rail solution.

“By having the rail operational we will be able to make full use of the new infrastructure to efficiently outload the grain at up to 1000 tonnes per hour,” she said.

“We expect most of the grain will be outloaded well before harvest.

“This is great news for growers as it means for the 2016/2017 harvest we will have the ability to rail out during harvest, ensuring we have the full capacity and flexibility of the site to service growers during the busy harvest period.

“Calleen has been designed and built as an export-focused site delivering a fast train cycle to Port Kembla. The investment in highly efficient infrastructure will reduce rail supply chain costs, which will translate into improved grain pricing and better returns for growers.”

Taylor wants this kind of advantage provided to growers throughout the network. But he says the company will need the government to help make that happen.

“We want more of our sites to be upgraded to this standard, but to make this possible we need support at both federal and state levels to upgrade government-owned rail infrastructure to match the increased capacity of these sites,” he said.

“Moving grain by rail is efficient, better for the community and keeps Australian grain competitive.”

VLocity carriage. Photo: Creative Commons / Marcus Wong

Report cites tight curves, inadequate lubrication, wear resistance as key issues in V/Line debacle

Victorian transport minister Jacinta Allan says an independent review into the accelerated wearing of wheels on V/Line’s VLocity fleet of trains was caused by tight curves on the network, inadequate lubrication, and the wear resistance of rail and wheels.

“Since January this year, regional train passengers have been subject to unacceptable disruption,” Allan said in a Friday statement.

V/Line services were thrown into disarray earlier this year, when much of the Bombardier-built VLocity fleet had to be taken off the rails to address the discovery of an accelerated rate of wheel wear on the fleet since the opening of the Regional Rail Link.

Bombardier and the state government have worked together to fix the issues, and Trad said 97% of V/Line services would return to normal by the end of April.

In addition to the work towards fixing the issue, Allan also announced an independent review of V/Line.

“The Board has now provided me with this report and it shows that V/Line has been asked to do more with less for too long,” she said.

“V/Line’s funding was cut by $120 million by the former Liberal and National Government, which put pressure on the organisation at a critical time in its development.

“It should have been growing as regional patronage and service levels grew. Instead, the Liberal and National Government cut funding to the regional operator, which has hurt V/Line and regional passengers.”

Allan said the operational review also makes important recommendations about improving the structure, governance and capability of V/Line and the board will adopt all of those recommendations.

“I will be discussing the report with the Board in coming weeks and have asked the Chair to start the recruitment of a new CEO,” she said.

“As someone who lives in regional Victoria, I believe in making V/Line stronger and better.

“I am determined to build a better regional operator so it can deliver the services passengers expect and deserve.”

Rail track. Photo: Shutterstock

Progress made on Murray Basin project

Port users are expected to be some of the major beneficiaries of a major rail project in Victoria.

New sleepers are being installed between Maryborough and Mildura as part of the Victorian Government’s $416m Murray Basin Rail Project (MBRP).

Agriculture and regional development minister Jaala Pulford welcomed the works and renewed calls for the Commonwealth to join their state counterparts in supporting the project.

The MBRP is to upgrade and standardise the entire Murray Basin freight network and better link farmers to the ports in Portland, Geelong and Melbourne.

Broad gauge sleepers being laid in Maryborough right now are to make the main freight line safer and more reliable straight away, paving the way for the next phase of the project.

Because the sleepers are wooden, they can be easily changed to standard gauge, reducing the time the Mildura line will be closed during stage two of the project.

All-in-all, 100,000 sleepers are to be laid between Maryborough and Mildura, of which nearly 30,000 have already been installed.

The State Government has put $220m toward the MBRP – more than half the estimated project cost.

Ms Pulford said the sleepers would improve freight safety and reliability.

“The Murray Basin Rail Project will enable primary producers across North Western Victoria to get more produce to port, more efficiently – boosting jobs and the regional economy,” Ms Pulford said.

“The Andrews Labor Government has put $220 million towards this project, and is calling again on the Federal Government to pay their fair share.”

This article originally appeared in Rail Express affiliate publication Lloyd’s List Australia.

VLocity carriage. Photo: Creative Commons / Marcus Wong

VLocity fleet ahead of schedule for return

93% of V/Line’s fleet will be back in service in just two weeks, as the government and train manufacturer Bombardier work overtime to fix recently-discovered wheel wear, and level crossing issues.

Victorian public transport minister Jacinta Allan announced this week that work to reduce wheel wear, accelerate maintenance and fix boom-gate detection issues had been more effective than anticipated.

As a result, 43 of the current 64 coach replacement services across the V/Line network will return to train services on March 21, the minister said.

Every Ballarat peak train service will be re-instated, Allan said, along with all but two services on the Gippsland line, which was hardest hit by recent disruptions.

A significant portion of V/Line’s rollingstock fleet was forced out of service in January, after maintenance identified an accelerated rate of wheel wear on VLocity trainsets, and one VLocity train failed to trigger the boom gates at a level crossing in Dandenong.

Neither V/Line, nor the trains’ manufacturer Bombardier, has publicly stated whether the two issues are related.

Bombardier has been working feverishly to fix the affected wheels, establishing an expanded working area for its VLocity fleet at its Dandenong manufacturing facility, to expedite the process.

Talking with Rail Express at a recent site tour, a member of Bombardier’s management team defended the VLocity train’s design.

While not laying any blame to any specific party, the staff member did point out that the wheel issues began cropping up shortly after the opening of Victoria’s newest section of railway, the Regional Rail Link, west of Melbourne.

Rail milling specialist Linmag Australia has told Rail Express it has undertaken track re-profiling for V/Line as a result of the wheel wear issues.

A study is being conducted by Monash University to get to the bottom of the wheel wear issue, with a final technical report due for completion later this month, Allan said.

Also due later this month is a review of the operational capacity of V/Line.

“There is still more work to be done but we are on the right track, and I will continue working as hard as I can to return V/Line services to the level people in regional Victoria expect and deserve,” Allan said.

Melbourne Tram. Photo:

More international talent to close Light Rail conference

Day Two of the Light Rail 2016 conference in Melbourne will include addresses by experts from Europe and the UK.

Following an engaging first day, the annual light rail event will wrap up on Thursday with a number more talks, and a site tour of Bombardier’s Dandenong plant.

Thursday’s schedule for the conference, at Pullman Melbourne on the Park, is as follows:

  • 0830 – Registration and morning coffee
  • 0855 – Opening remarks from the chair of the day; Dr Anjum Naweed, principle research fellow, Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation
  • 0900 – UK Tram – Innovation and Sharing Best Practice; Robin Wolfendale, rail projects manager, Trelleborg Offshore, UK Tram
  • 0930 – Trends in Light Rail in Europe; Regis Hennion, metro and light rail director, Keolis
  • 1000 – Understanding the Wider Value of Honor Based Ticketing in Light Rail; Professor Graham Currie, chair of public transport, Institute of Transport Studies, Monash University
  • 1030 – Global Technology Breakthrough for Light Rail; Ian Corfield, projects director, Bombardier Transportation Australia
  • 1100 – Morning Tea
  • 1120 – Financing Light Rail Projects; Darrin Grimsey, lead client service partner, TAS Government & Public Sector, infrastructure advisory, EY
  • 1150 – Presentation from Shane Ellison, NSW managing director, Transdev
  • 1220 – Applying Value Capture Funding in Australia – Current Opportunities and Obstacles; Joe Langley, technical director, infrastructure advisory, AECOM
  • 1250 – Lunch
  • 1330 – Sustainable Light Rail Delivery; Melanie McGaw, SQE director, KDR Gold Coast
  • 1400 – Practical Implementation of DDA Compliant Infrastructure on the Melbourne Tram Network; Mike Ford, senior rail design engineer, Jacobs
  • 1430 – Looking Beyond the Wall of Technology (A Light Rail X-Ray); Dr Anjum Naweed, principal research fellow, Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation
  • 1500 – Closing remarks
  • 1510 – 1830 – Site visit to Bombardier rail vehicles production site at Dandenong, Victoria.
Parsons Brinkerhoff new hires. Photo: WSP|Parsons Brinkerhoff / WestNet Rail

Parsons Brinkerhoff adds to transport group

Engineering firm WSP|Parsons Brinkerhoff has recently added three senior leaders to its transport team.

The company said this week it has added Richard Boggon, Erica Adamson and Peter Letts in various leadership roles.

Boggon has re-joined the business as the general manager for Transport Services, while Adamson and Letts have been appointed as major project executives.

Recent work in the Australian transport sector by the engineer – which is known as WSP|Parsons Brinkerhoff after PB was acquired by WSP Global in 2014 – includes the rebuild of Glenfield Junction railway station and interchange in Sydney, and the Regional Rail Link project in Victoria.

WSP|Parsons  Brinkerhoff director of Transport Charlie Jewkes said Boggon would lead Transport’s operations and capability across Australia and New Zealand, while Letts and Adamson would provide leadership and guidance to major strategic bids and projects across the region.

“Erica, Peter and Richard have significant industry and key client experience which they bring most recently from Transport for NSW, NSW Roads and Maritime Services and from Ventia [respectively],” Jewkes explained.

“With our industry poised to pick up pace in 2016, WSP|Parsons Brinkerhoff has secured new leadership talent to support its ambitions to grow the company and strengthen its client offering.

“These individuals will provide key industry intelligence and support the planning and delivery of major projects across the ANZ transport market.”

The new hires will be based in the company’s Sydney office.

Qube container. Photo: Qube

Qube clarifying Chinese firm’s role in Asciano bid

Qube is reportedly working to assuage concerns over China Investment Corporation (CIC)’s involvement in its bid for Australian port and rail giant Asciano.

The Chinese sovereign wealth fund is an investor with Global Infrastructure Partners, a key financial ally to Qube Holdings in its bid for Asciano, which is currently being reviewed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The Chinese fund already owns a small portion of Asciano (under 5%), but questions have been raised this month over the precise role, if any, CIC would take in Qube’s proposed takeover of Australia’s biggest amalgamated port and rail business.

Chinese investment in Australian infrastructure has taken a hit to its image after the Northern Territory’s sale of the Port of Darwin to Chinese firm Landbridge drew criticism from the Australian and US governments.

The sale of the Port of Darwin, Australia’s northernmost transport and defence hub, was not subjected to proper scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board, treasurer Scott Morrison conceded recently.

So now Qube is said to be seeking confirmation from Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), that CIC would only have a passive role in an acquisition of Asciano.

GIP is set to deliver 40% of the capital needed to purchase Asciano, and is joined in the Qube-led bid by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

The Qube bid is being scrutinised by the ACCC, along with a rival bid from North American investor Brookfield.

Brookfield has made a number of concessions in its bid, including the planned sale of Asciano’s rail subsidiary, Pacific National, should it succeed in its takeover.

Concessions were submitted to the ACCC after the competition watchdog raised concerns over Brookfield’s ownership of Brookfield Rail, which already controls above rail access in much of Western Australia.

The ACCC is set to make a ruling on both bids by February 18.

Julia Creek first freight train. Photo: Queensland Rail

Services re-open on Mt Isa line following sulfuric acid derailment

WATCH: Freight and passenger services have resumed on the Mount Isa rail line in north-west Queensland, after a train carrying 817,000 litres of acid derailed last month.

“Constructing this deviation has been our number one priority,” Queensland Rail regional asset manager west Brett Leo said on Tuesday.

“Two shifts have worked tirelessly around the clock to construct the deviation. We’ve used around 4,000 tonnes of rock, 2,000 tonnes of road base, around 900 sleepers, a thousand metres of rail and around 2,000 cubic metres of ballast.

“The deviation is now operating safely and efficiently.”

Queensland Rail shared video of the first freight train going through the deviation at around 6pm on Tuesday, January 12:

The first passenger train is expected to pass through the deviation at some point on Thursday.

The Mount Isa line was shut after an Aurizon locomotive and all 26 of its wagons derailed near Julia Creek at around 10.20am on December 27, 2015.

Police reported that one of the train’s wagons had ruptured, leaking roughly 31,500 litres of sulfuric acid, some of which reached the nearby Horse Creek and contaminated it, according to Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage.

Fortunately no serious injuries were reported following the derailment.

Workers treated the acid spill with limestone powder, which was placed in the river and on the surrounding landscape to neutralise the strong industrial acid.

Meanwhile the rail deviation was constructed around the derailment site, so services could resume while wagon and locomotive recovery work takes place in coming weeks.

“Following the completion of the rail deviation, freight trains resumed on the Mount Isa line,” Queensland Rail said. “Queensland Rail recognises the importance of the Mount Isa line to the local economy, particularly in shipping freight to the Port of Townsville, and will continue to work closely with freight companies to accommodate additional freight movements on the Mount Isa line where possible.

“We are confident we can complete any additional movements before the end of this financial year.”

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has opened an investigation into the derailment, which has not yet been explained by Aurizon or Queensland Rail.

Aurizon is working with Incitec Pivot to recover the train and wagons from the site.

Rail deviation being built at Julia Creek. Photo: Queensland Rail

Construction begins on deviation at Julia Creek derailment

WATCH: Work to build an 800 metre rail deviation around a derailment site of a sulphuric acid train on the Mount Isa line in north-west Queensland began late last week.

Queensland Rail’s regional general manager for North Queensland Michael Mitchell said on Friday, January 8, that conditions had greatly improved and the ground was drier and more stable, allowing for construction work to begin.

On December 27 an Aurizon-operated train hauling around 810,000 litres of Incitec Pivot sulphuric acid derailed, causing at least one wagon to breach and spill out its contents.

Workers have treated the surrounding land and nearby creek with lime, and now work has begun on bringing the line back into service via a rail deviation, so the lengthy wagon and locomotive recovery process can take place.

“Following site specific safety and environment assessments, the crews we had on standby to build the track have now mobilised on site and will be working around the clock to build the deviation and resume rail services,” Mitchell explained.

“We know that Queenslanders rely on the Mount Isa line for rail services and our priority is to build the deviation as quickly and as safely as possible to ensure we reopen the line.”

Conditions permitting, construction of the deviation could be complete as early as midway through this week, he added.

“More than 50 Queensland Rail staff will work around the clock constructing the track, which will involve laying more than 1000 sleepers, 1.6km of rail and 2800 tonnes of ballast.”

Mitchell said he was confident that while the temporary forced closure of the line had caused disruption, Queensland Rail would be able to provide freight companies with the required capacity to make up for lost time and complete all necessary movements by the end of the financial year.

“We recognise the importance of the line to the local economy and shipping freight to port,” he said.

“We are in regular communication with freight operators to ensure they are well informed of the progress of recovery works and to ensure we can process outstanding movements as quickly as possible.”