Vietnam should forget about high speed railway until 2030

By Huynh The Du   July 24, 2019 | 10:00 pm PT
An expensive high-speed railway is a nice dream, but let’s get real and build better roads between provinces first.
Huynh The Du

Huynh The Du

On a visit to California, I discovered that the western U.S. state had kept pending a high speed rail proposal since 1996 due to funding cuts made by the federal government.

In the U.S., while the business sector and community institutions remain dynamic, the public sector has creaking old bones and its inherent problems are exposed.

The country’s traffic infrastructure is well developed and high speed rail can hardly compete with other means of transportation. Roadways are good enough for commuting. Long distance commuters have flying as their top choice. The railway is at its best in cargo transportation. These means of transportation work efficiently and the construction of a high speed rail system would probably lead to a big waste of federal funds.

The high speed rail route connecting Boston and Washington DC is the only one of its type available in the U.S. The inefficiency of this type of transport let investors down and as a result, no one is eager to invest further in it. It seems to me that high speed rail has had no effect to the U.S. economy and has failed to meet residents’ travel needs.

However, the high speed rail in Japan impressed me. I witnessed the perfectly on-time service of Shinkansen, the ‘bullet train’ connecting Tokyo with remote areas during my visit last April.

The feeling I had when using Shinkansen service was somewhat similar to the experience traveling on a similar high-speed train from Wenshang City to Kunming City in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province.

China is home to one of the most modern and longest high speed rail routes in the world. Traveling from Wenshang to Beijing, I had the chance to use the high speed train, roadway transport and the airways. I felt that China was doing very well in developing its transport infrastructure. The Chinese have succeeded in building up 100,000 km expressways and 30,000 km high speed rail in two decades.

I can list South Korea and Taiwan as two other samples for those wanting to learn about planning modern traffic infrastructure. In these places, every form of transportation has a proper infrastructure system, which effectively serves traffic needs. Both South Korea and Taiwan commenced the construction of high speed rail routes after they had developed thoroughly their roadways and normal railway systems.

Japans Nozomi bullet train. Photo by Reuters/File.

Japan's Nozomi bullet train. Photo by Reuters/File.

As a Vietnamese citizen, I have wished, like every other Vietnamese citizen, that the country has a modern traffic infrastructure system along the entire stretch of this S-shaped land. While everyone can dream of this, it is policymakers who can take the first steps in making it come true.

I mean here the role of the central government in mobilizing resources and managing these in the most effective way. I believe the central government should have a clear vision as well as capacity to prioritize items to invest in so as to achieve breakthroughs.

The 11th Congress of Vietnamese Communist Party had recognized breakthroughs in infrastructure, and institutional and manpower policy reform as top tasks. The last decade has witnessed sound outcomes from the congress' resolutions. However, these have fallen short of citizens’ expectations.

The Vietnamese North-South Expressway project in facing challenges in the bidding process as there are few connections between it and key roads in the localities that it would go through. For me this is the crux, strategically, in developing the expressways connecting the two ends of the country.

I think expressways connecting a locality to others should be the top priority in building a modern traffic system for Vietnam. Cities and provinces across the country need expressways connecting each other for their development.

Ha Giang in the northern highlands, for instance, will remain a remote unknown land without an expressway connecting it to Hanoi. Tay Ninh Province, which lies right next to Ho Chi Minh City, has the same connection problem. The need is even more urgent in the Mekong Delta.

Most citizens expect the high speed railway, but that should be the dream for 2045. What we need now is expressways, which, with strong determination and swift actions, we can basically complete in around 10 or 15 years.

This is important because, when the government promises something and fails to deliver, resources get wasted and public trust gets compromised. The large public is actually doubful of the capacity of the Ministry of Transport given big delays across the country.

The legislative National Assembly had rejected the north-south high speed rail proposal once in 2010 and I believe now is not the right time to restart the project. Instead, Vietnam should concentrate its resources on developing the country’s expressway system, normal railways as well as airway infrastructure.

In my opinion, Vietnam should pause the high speed rail project at least until 2030. Flight and bus services have improved sharply in recent times and I believe it will be hard for high speed trains to compete with them.

And if the central government is insistent on developing high speed railway, it should begin with short-distance routes rather than a mega north-south project, one that has raised questions about funding, budget and the capacity of contractors.

What would we do when Chinese contractors offer lower bids compared to Japanese or other counterparts? Would Vietnam be wise in picking China again and suffering the recent dilemmas again?

In the last two decades, Vietnam has constructed almost 1,000 km of expressways. The country’s two economic locomotives, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, are struggling to complete their first ever metro routes.

Vietnam should learn from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and even China. We should learn to fully complete each work before starting with another and not wish for too many things at the same time.

*Huynh The Du is a lecturer at Fulbright University. The views expressed here are his own.

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