In the age of cheap air travel, Hanoi's train factory fades from glory

By AFP, VnExpress   June 9, 2017 | 07:07 pm PT
'If rail transportation isn't developed, then the railway industry cannot be revived.'

Built by the French to fix trains for their fast-developing Vietnamese colony, the Gia Lam factory later churned out weapons to fuel the country's independence fight, and then survived the onslaught of American bombers during the war.

But the storied Hanoi plant is now in decline, a victim of the rising consumer power of Vietnam's middle classes as passengers turn from trains to planes.

"In the past, I was proud to work here because this factory was the biggest in Indochina," repairman Au Duy Hien told AFP.

Opened in 1905, Gia Lam was the first train factory in the then-French territory, which spanned modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Mechanics used the base to first fix and then assemble the engines and carriages that served the region's rapid push toward industrialization.

The factory was taken over by the Vietnamese in the 1940s, expanding production to make bazookas and grenades for revolutionaries fighting the colonial rulers who were finally thrown out in 1954.

And then it continued to make weapons during the Vietnam War, even as it was bombed by U.S. planes targeting revolutionaries in northern Vietnam.

But today, output is down more than 90 percent since its 1990s heyday.

It is now mostly used to repair old trains, with little demand for new carriages on the country's vast but outdated rail network.

The industry is struggling to keep pace with the lure of low-cost air travel.

For many, the choice between a clanging, slow-moving train or a quick and cheap plane is a no-brainer.

In 2015, 31 million people travelled by air, more than double the number in 2010, according to official statistics.

Train use remained steady at 11 million for the year.

Today, some companies are seeking to revive the romance of rail travel, offering first-class trips, wood-lined cabins with restaurant car.

"If rail transportation isn't developed, then the railway industry cannot be revived," union boss Nguyen Anh Tuan told AFP.

Some lawmakers recently called for private investment into the state-controled sector, and the country's parliament is currently considering revising the law.

But unless the industry sees a major upturn in fortunes, Gia Lam employees fear it will soon run out of steam.

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