Few passengers, mounting losses, but Vietnam train route remains on track

By Ba Do   July 27, 2019 | 09:59 am GMT+7

Despite annual losses of VND1 billion ($43,000), the Hanoi-Ha Long train runs daily, preventing rail damage and serving small businesses.

Few passengers, mounting losses, but Vietnam train route remains on track

At 5 a.m. on every weekday, a train leaves the Yen Vien station in Hanoi for Ha Long in Quang Ninh Province, covering a distance of 160km. On a Thursday, there was just one passenger.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hang, a native of Hanoi (pictured), said she and her husband were taking their son to Ha Long for a trip. She is three months pregnant and suffers from motion sickness, so she decided to take the train, while her husband and son took the car. The eight-hour journey from Yen Vien to Ha Long costs VND80,000 ($3.4). It takes around three and a half hours on road.

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The train has two cargo cars and one passenger car. Both cargo cars, one used for vehicles and the other for agricultural produce, were empty.

Nguyen Huu Ninh, the train’s conductor, said: "The train starts early in the morning and the station is quite far from Hanoi center. It's also quite old and travel time is way too long, so very few people choose it."

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The train cars on this route were purchased from China decades ago. There is no air-conditioning, just rusty and dusty ceiling fans.

Conductor Ninh said this was the most deserted train in Vietnam’s railway system. The train has its peak during holidays where dozens of tourists fill the passenger cars. Otherwise, it carries just a handful of passengers a day.

At an average speed of 25 kph, the train stops at a dozen or so stations as it passes through the provinces of Bac Ninh, Bac Giang, Hai Duong before the final stop in Ha Long, Quang Ninh.

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Hang and a railway staff on the train take a nap.

Phung Thi Ly Ha, deputy general director of Hanoi Railway Transport Joint Stock Company, said: "Despite an annual loss of VND1 billion ($43,000), it's necessary to maintain the train to accommodate small business people who've been taking it for many years."

Last year, Vietnam Railways stopped operating the train for five months and faced a backlash from locals in the provinces it runs through. They sent a petition to authorities for the service to be resumed so that students, soldiers and vendors could travel from Hanoi to Quang Ninh and vice versa. In September, the route was reopened.

Another reason for keeping the track running is to prevent the railway system from getting damaged from disuse, said a spokesperson for the state-run Vietnam Railways.

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Ninh sits at the open doors of the train to enjoy the breeze.

Last year, due to the lack of passengers many train staff were laid off for five months without pay. Only the train driver, conductor, some security staff and others were each paid around VND4 million ($172) a month, around the minimum wage set for businesses in Hanoi.

"Most of us take two days off after every working day to do something else on the side for extra money, like construction work," Ninh said.

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At Bac Giang, the train stopped for 20 minutes and several merchants got on with their agricultural produce.

Pham Thi Boi, a native of Bac Giang, said: "I have been taking the train to go to Ha Long to work for 30 years. In recent years, merchants don’t like to take the train anymore and switch to cars because the train moves quite slowly, plus there’s no AC to help preserve the food for long."

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No food is served on the train, and catering services are not available at most stations on the way, so passengers bring their own food and water. The train crew (pictured) usually place a food order at Bac Giang station before it arrives.

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After Bac Giang, the train picked up about a dozen merchants from about 10 stations. They made use of the unoccupied chairs to place their commodities.

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Duong Thi Hong of Bac Giang (L) has been taking chickens to Quang Ninh Province for around 10 years. She said traveling by road is cheaper and faster, but she has to put her chickens on the top or in the trunk and that’s too hot for the fowl.

"So I choose the train because there’s more space and it's safer."

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At the destination, the passengers took their cargoes off the train.

All cars were completely empty as it started out on its way back to Hanoi.

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Conductor Ninh calculates the daily collection. 

"On average, the train earns VND4 million ($173) a day. That’s not enough to pay the operation fees, let alone salaries for dozens of staff at all stations on the way," Ninh said.

Ha of the Hanoi Railway Transport Company said they have prepared a proposal to the government to change the train’s objective from making profit to performing a social welfare service to receive better support and maintain long-term operations.

 
 
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