Vietnam railways on the other side of the tracks

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Transportation experts say Vietnam's railway system receives no funds that it can use to modernize and tap its market potentials. Photo by Mai Vong

After nearly 20 years of making most of his journeys within the country by train, Hanoi resident Manh Hung has decided it is not worth it any more.

It takes too much time and the service is too poor for him to continue being a loyal customer, he feels.

Hung said the train is no longer the top option for his family and many of his friends.

Official statistics for the past five years show that each Vietnamese citizen used the train an average of 0.12 times, or once every nine or ten years.

While many people like Hung are turning their backs on the train, officials said the Vietnamese railway system is wasting its potentials in both passenger and freight transport by sticking to facilities from a century ago.

They say existing trains are discouraging even before people have a chance to step on it, beginning with problems in buying tickets.

People cannot use a credit card to buy tickets as they can do with airplanes. They can only book their seats and go to the station later to pay in cash for the tickets.

Surveys have found more than 40 percent of train customers are unsatisfied with existing ticket booking arrangements.

The time taken to reach one's destination is another discouraging factor. Trips between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City take 29 hours each way, the same since 2000, while many regional trips remain as long as they were at the beginning of Vietnam's railway history. It still takes nine hours to cover the 300 kilometers between Hanoi and Vinh, the capital town of Thanh Hoa Province, and this goes up to 12 hours during holidays.

"That can set a world record in travel time," Hung said.

He said trains only stop for around five minutes at stations, not enough time for people to load or unload all their bags, and he has seen many having to leave some bags with their families at the station.

A customer named Van from the central province of Quang Binh said facilities inside the train have not improved much over the years.

"After more than ten years of traveling my trains, I've noticed the quality has only gone down," said the woman who took a train home from Hanoi for the Lunar New Year holiday earlier this month.

Van said the ceiling fans in the carriages are old and sometimes they startle customers by making hissing sounds, and some of them are no longer working.

"Many trains are not well cleaned, many carriages are stinking," she said.

Stuck in time

Ha Ngoc Truong, vice chairman of Ho Chi Minh City Association of Bridges, Roads and Ports, said Vietnam is using a railway system built more than a hundred years ago during the French colonial period.

He said there have been improvements, but it is basically the same, still the meter gauge (one-meter-wide single-track) where trains going in both directions share the same track. The international standard, broad guage, is 1.435 meters.

Railroad switches are still operated manually instead of automatically like in many countries in the world.

Truong said the cuts to travel time, from 72 hours more than a decade ago to 29 hours for a north-south trip, were possible thanks to shorter and fewer stops at stations, instead of new technologies. Current facilities only allow a train to run at a maximum speed of 90 kilometers per hour.

Transportation experts are concerned that poor investments have left the railway system underdeveloped and unable to tap existing market potential.

Official statistics show that the railway share of cargo transportation has plunged from 27.9 percent in 1996 to 4.1 percent in 2011. Its share in passenger transport also reduced from 7.9 percent to 1.8 percent over the same period, while roads accounted for 92.1 percent of passenger transportation in 2011 and airlines 0.62 percent, up from 0.48 percent in 2005.

The Hanoi-based Transport Investment and Construction Consultant JSC had said in a report that weak, outdated infrastructure is the main factor hindering the railway system's development. It has been prevented from expanding its market share over the past years as the country grew by leaps and bounds.

The company called the railway infrastructure "an old, crumpled picture," saying efforts have only been made to keep it from falling to pieces instead of improving it significantly.

Low investment priority

Pham Cong Ha, chairman of Vietnam Railway Transport Economy Association, said the government has spent VND1.7 trillion (US$81.63 million) every year on the railway system, but that is only enough to maintain it.

Ha said poor development has caused the railways to lose big parts of the transport pie to roads and airplanes, whose systems have developed strongly.

Cash flows into railway infrastructure between 2008 and 2011 only accounted for 2.51 percent of state investments for the entire transport system, while roads received 84.8 percent.

Development assistance from foreign donors has mostly been used on roads as well. Projects to repair and maintain several railways have been delayed for up to five years due to a shortage of funds.

Private investors, meanwhile, are not interested in the railways as the expenses are high and investments take a long time to pay off, officials said.

They said the railway has thus lost its competitiveness, failing to meet peak travel demand on holidays, and offering cumbersome cargo transportation services.

"Long travel time, high fares, and complicated procedures including different stages of loading have caused enterprises to switch millions of tons of cargo to roads every year," Ha said.

"The north-south distance of nearly 2,000 kilometers is a golden route but the railway system only gets a small percentage of its cargo traffic. What a sad situation, what a waste of national resources," he said.

The wrong road

Another concern, said Vuong Dinh Khanh, former deputy general director of Vietnam Railways Corporation, is the cost of fixing roads that are put to carry such heavy loads that only railways can sustain.

"It is a mistake that roads instead of railways are utilized for freight transport. Trains are the only effective means of transport for heavy loads on long routes, and they can save roads from the rapid aging," he said, noting that many roads including expressways have been damaged because people have been carefree in plying heavy trucks on them.

Experts are agreed that turning the fortunes of Vietnamese railways around is not an easy task. There is still no consensus on the ideal approach to get this done.

Some have suggested a high-speed railroad that would leapfrog the sector into the modern age. But others say that would be an overreach that the nation cannot afford right now.

They, including experts from Transport Investment and Construction Consultant JSC, said that given the paucity of funds, a more practical solution is to upgrade the current system as much as possible and adopt advanced technologies when the nation can afford them.

Truong of the HCMC Association of Bridges, Roads and Ports called for studies into upgrading the current system into a double-track railroad that can allow maximum travel speeds of 120 kmh, which will halve the travel time between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and increase the number of trips from the current 32 to 170.

He estimated that this upgrade would cost around US$14.5 billion. A 1.435-meter double-track railroad that allows maximum speeds of 150 kmh would cost around $27.7 billion, he said.

Experts were also agreed that the government should issue preferential policies for railway investments so that different financial sources can be tapped, or Vietnam will not be able to connect to the Trans-Asian Railway, a United Nations project initiated in the 1960s to provide a continuous rail link of 14,080 kilometers between Europe and Asia, with possible further connections to Africa.

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