Losing track: Vietnam’s ailing railway network

The glory days and romance have been left by the tracks along one of the first railway networks in Asia.

Vietnam’s railway system was developed nearly 140 years ago, but in recent years it seems to have been running out of steam.

When the French occupied Saigon during the first Indochina War, they built the country’s first railway which ran 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Saigon to My Tho in the Mekong Delta.

Construction started in 1881, making it one of the first in the region and the most modern in Southeast Asia.

Over the next decades, a north-south system of more than 3,000 kilometers (nearly 1,900 miles) was developed.

But that is how it has stayed ever since.

Vietnamese lawmakers have been discussing revisions to the Railway Law during a month-long session that ends next week, hoping to restore the network to its former glory.

There has been a lot of nostalgic talk.

“Vietnam had a modern railway network very early, but that has faded and right now it’s very outdated,” Transport Minister Truong Quang Nghia said at a meeting with legislators in late May.

Archive pictures of Vietnam's railway system between 1881 and 1977

The railway network has been neglected and the best of the old days have gone down in ruins.

The 84-km Thap Cham-Da Lat line, running from the former coastal Champa Kingdom to “Little Paris” in the Central Highlands, is one rusty example.

Built by the French between 1902-1932, the track was the second in the world to use a rack rail to traverse steep terrain, after the Jungfraujoch that runs across the Alps.

But after the war, passengers left and the tracks were dismantled by people looking to sell scrap metal.

In 2006, authorities announced a VND5 trillion ($220 million) project to revive the track, but with the plan still on paper, the train station in Da Lat remains a mere photo set.

The Thap Cham - Da Lat rail track, built by the French between 1902-1932, has been left unused for decades.

The rail crisis has also damaged business at one of the country's largest train factories in Hanoi that was built by the French in 1905.

The factory in Gia Lam District started losing business more than 10 years ago due to few orders for new trains. Once a symbol of wealth in the capital, the factory is now considered an eyesore and has been ordered to relocate.

“The railways have not received any investment for years,” said La Ngoc Khue, former deputy minister of transport.

Only 3 percent of the state budget's infrastructure investment went on railways over the past decade, while roads received nearly 90 percent.

While other countries in the region have developed thousands of kilometers of electric dual-gauge tracks, 85 percent of the network in Vietnam still runs on the narrow one-meter gauge, a design that has been blamed for regular train crashes.

In 2005, a train flipped in the central city of Hue and killed 11 people.

There were three major rail incidents in 2010, and another two in 2011.

The railway network is also a safety threat due to the large number of unmonitored level crossings. Official data show there are 1,400 guarded crossings cutting the country’s railways, but there are 4,200 illegal crossings, which means the network is cut every half a kilometer.

The railways have not received any investment for years.

La Ngoc Khue, former deputy minister of transport

With Vietnam's railway network losing steam, many passengers are moving from trains to planes.

The railway's share of the transport system has shrunk from 30 percent in the 1930s to less than two percent.

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

Train passengers remained steady at 11 million for the year.

In an effort to brighten the picture, the government has approved a plan for various improvements to the network, including speeding up trains from 50-60 kph to 90 kph by 2020 and starting work on a dual gauge track for high-speed trains that will run at 200 kph.

Some companies are also looking to revive the romance of rail travel, offering first-class trips and wood-lined cabins with restaurant cars like the five-star train service launched this year from Ho Chi Minh City to the coastal resort town of Nha Trang.

Hoang Phuong - Doan Loan

By Hoang Phuong - Doan Loan