Languishing railways hit harder by novel coronavirus fears

By Anh Duy   February 15, 2020 | 11:24 pm PT
Languishing railways hit harder by novel coronavirus fears
Passengers wearing masks before boarding a Hanoi train. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Duy.
Vietnamese railways, left to languish by the prioritizing of road and aviation sectors, has been hit particularly hard by the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic.

On Friday afternoon, the SE9 transnational train leaving Hanoi Station for Ho Chi Minh City left with a smattering of passengers scattered across its carriages, most of them travelling short distances from Hanoi to nearby provinces.

The train had just 171 passengers, a sharp decrease compared to the end of 2019, when it carried on more than 300 passengers a trip on average, with the number rising to 500 during Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday season.

In the evening, another transnational train departed the  Hanoi Station with just 100 passengers. Phung Thi Ly Ha, Deputy Director of Hanoi Railway Transport JSC, which manages the northern region, said passenger numbers have dropped 40 percent year-on-year on the routes the company operates.

Tran Thi Lien, a passenger on the SE9 train from Vinh Town in the central province of Nghe An, said she and her husband were taking the train to Hanoi and back despite being worried about the novel coronavirus. She wore a mask and had a hand wash gel with her for safety.

"Going by train is still less tiring than going by car, because it is more spacious. We can see some passengers travelling, wearing masks as well, so that makes us a bit less worried," she added.

Nguyen Van Duc, an attendant on the SE9, said the train usually ran with 11 carriages, but two were removed because there were very few passengers. The carriages had been sanitized before welcoming guests, and attendants were handing out masks to passengers if needed. The train also has a designated isolation carriage in the event some passengers display suspect symptoms, he added.

Because of the epidemic, Hanoi Railway Transport JSC had to cut two daily trains between the capital city and the northern province of Lao Cai, which borders China. The company has also cut two or three carriages on each train going on other routes to save on equipment and manpower, Duc said.

The company is also offering discounted train tickets between Hanoi and Vinh town to attract passengers.

"We have cut prices by 20 percent on this route until March 10. Regular tickets now cost VND164,000 ($7), and air-conditioned berths cost VND204,000 ($8.8)," Ha said.

Saigon Railway Transport JSC, which operates the southern routes, has also had to stop a number of trains between HCMC and popular tourist destinations such as the coastal towns of Quy Nhon and Phan Thiet, which are usually very crowded.

The company said it has stopped operating trains between HCMC and Quy Nhon completely from February 10, and last Friday decided to run the HCMC-Phan Thiet train on Fridays and weekends only.

Passengers who have purchased tickets on the cancelled trains will be relocated to other trains with the same seat class. They will be refunded the difference if their new seat is less expensive, but will not have to pay extra if it is more expensive. Or customers can get their tickets fully refunded, Saigon Railway Transport JSC said.

According to a Transport Ministry report released Wednesday, the epidemic has hit both the Hanoi Railway Transport JSC and Saigon Railway Transport JSC, the country’s two main state-owned rail operators, very hard.

As of February 10, Hanoi Railway Transport JSC had refunded 26,630 tickets worth VND13 billion ($558,800) as people have become wary of travelling by train amidst the epidemic.

Shares of the two railroad operators, both penny stocks, plummeted by up to 30 percent between January 30 and February 13.

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