Railways have to shape up or ship out

TN News

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  Passengers at Saigon Railway Station in Ho Chi Minh City / PHOTO: DIEP DUC MINH

Like Christmas in Western countries, Tet (Lunar New Year) sees millions of Vietnamese people moving to be together with their families as they celebrate this most auspicious festival.

Vietnamese people head home for this occasion from every corner of the world, as well as every corner of the country.

And for decades, in Vietnam, trains have been the people’s top choice of transport.

However, for the first time ever, tens of thousands of train tickets have been reported to be unsold this year, even though the holiday is very near.

According to a representative of state-owned Vietnam Railways, the poor sales had to do with the current economic difficulties. He said many people did not earn enough to afford trips back home, so they have decided to stay on in the big cities where they work, like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang.

This explanation does not sound very convincing, given that while railway stations’ ticket booths were almost empty, lots of people were jostling to get tickets at bus stations and offices of bus companies.

In fact, people now have better choices: high-quality buses which are offering lower fares (than trains), including free meals, mineral water, and wet tissues; planes which considerably reduce travel time, and sometimes can be cheaper than trains and buses if people are able to buy low-cost tickets.

The quality of services on trains, meanwhile, is infamously bad: meals are free but sold at expensive prices and poorly cooked, toilets are dirty and smelly, seats are old and rusty, and often, the staff are cold and unfriendly. 

Ticket selling systems are so clumsy that people have to struggle a lot – sleeping right at stations for days, staying online for nights, or sending lots of text messages – to buy tickets, whenever Tet is near.

Worse still, train fares are high compared to other means of transport.

At a meeting early this month, Minister of Transport Dinh La Thang said that it costs VND1.9 million (US$89) to go from Hanoi to HCMC by train, while it costs just VND1.2 million ($56) for a low-cost flight. Not to mention that a train trip takes 30 hours, more than ten times longer, he said.

The minister also warned that with the upcoming launch of new highways, trains will face even fiercer competition from buses.

Why has the means of transport that has had several advantages over others (railways which were already built many years ago, and receives state investment) fallen into such a pathetic situation?

“It seems that the leaders of Vietnam Railway do not consider the company as a business, but a government agency in charge of managing railways, so they are very slow to make changes,” Thang once said.

Or, perhaps it is because the company has been too confident because of their monopoly position, seeing people fight hard for a ticket every year.

So, having tens of thousands of unsold tickets this year should be a wake-up call, reminding the company that without making changes to face growing competition from airplanes and buses, trains will be soon abandoned by passengers.

If this happens, the argument will be made that when a means of transport costs trillions of dong to operate but fails to become the backbone of the public transport system, it is an unacceptable waste and must be got rid of.

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