Kanchanaburi - Death Railway

River Kwai Bridge Photograph from 1940's The River Kwai Bridge, Hellfire Pass, the JEATH Museum and Chong Kai Cemetery are all related to what has become known as the "death railway".

Japanese strategy for Burma included laying rail from Thanbyuzayat, Burma on the Bay of Bengal through Bangkok to Singapore. The area selected for crossing into Thailand was the Three Pagoda's Pass and an area 5 km north of Kanchanaburi that crossed the Mae Klong River (later renamed the Kwae 1 Yai River) .

Prisoners of war from the allied nations of England, Australia, America, Thailand and Holland labored to build the bridge and excavate the rugged mountain pass. Altogether, the railroad stretched 419 kilometers. An estimated 16,000 allied POW's and 60,000 Asian conscripted laborers died along the way.

What may tell the Death Railway story best is an inscription on a memorial plaque at one end of the bridge.

  • During the Second World War the Japanese Army constructed a military railway line branching off the southern line at Nong Pladuk (also known as Non Pladuk) Station, Km.64. This line crossed over the River Kwae Yai at Kanchanaburi, traversed along the bank of Kwae Noi River, cut across the Thai-Burma border at Chedi Sam Ong, continued on into Burma and joined the Burma railway line at Thanbyuzayat. The total length of line constructed was 419 km., being in Thailand 303.95 km. and in Burma 111.05 km.
  • Construction work started in October 1942. A year later on 23 October 1943 rail laying was completed. About 60,000 men consisting of Indian, Burmese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese and Thai labourers as well as prisoners of war took part in the construction work.
  • The diesel power traction car shown here was used during the construction. It could be run either on road or railway track. The road wheels would be lowered into position when required. The steam locomotive shown was employed for military transport service on this line.
  • In speeding up construction work the Japanese Army built a temporary railway bridge across the River Kwae Yai downstream closed to the existing bridge. After completion of the existing bridge composing of 11 steel spans with the rest of timber spans, the temporary bridge was dismantled to ease off river traffic inconvenience. Three steel spans nos. 4, 5, 6 were damaged by allied bombing during the war period. After taking over the line the State Railway of Thailand replaced the three damaged spans with two steel spans and changed all timber spans at the far end with six steel spans.
  • When the war come to an end in 1945 the British Army dismantled 3.95 kms. of track at the Thai-Burma border. The remaining length of 300 kms. was handed over to the State Railway of Thailand in 1947. With due and careful consideration in regard to transport economic as well as other aspects, the State Railway of Thailand was authorised to dismantle the track from the end of the line to Nam Tok Station and to upgrade the remaining length of 130.204 kms. to Nong Pladuk Station conforming to operational permanent way standard. Subsequently, the section between Nong Pladuk and Kanchanaburi Stations was officially opened to traffic on 24 June 1949, between Kanchanaburi and Wang Pho Stations on 1 April 1952 and the last section from Wang Pho to Nam Tok Stations on 1 July 1958. State Railway of Thailand.

Courtesy Australian War Memorial


Note: "Kwae" is a nearest transliteration of the Thai Name for the Kwae Yai River. We use "Kwai" on this site because it is normally what travelers recognize. Kwai is the transliteration for water buffalo. Kwae is pronounced similarly to "Quay"