Vietnam lawmakers refuse to bite the bullet on train project

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Lawmakers unimpressed by lack of profit, safety and funding plans for Vietnam's first transnational express train

Workers bundle reclaimed materials by the train tracks in Hanoi. Vietnam Railways Corp. plans to start building a high-speed rail test track in 2012.

A plan to build the first-ever express rail route traversing the S-shaped length of the country has run into some pointed questioning by National Assembly deputies.

Their skepticism about the project mainly revolves around its economic feasibility, the difficulty in obtaining the huge sums of money involved, and inadequate attention paid so far to safety issues.

"It's great to have an express railway but we are not sure of being able to attract the investment because it would cost up to US$4.3 billion a year," said Nguyen Van Thuan, chairman of the National Assembly (NA) Law Committee.

Thuan was speaking at the NA Standing Committee meeting on April 17 to discuss the $55.8-billion express railway project running 1,570 kilometers to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It will run 365 kilometers on the ground, 1,043 kilometers on elevated sections, 117 kilometers through tunnel sections and over 46 kilometers of bridges and overpasses.

Hanoi-HCMC express-railway plan

Total estimated investment: VND1.066 trillion ($55.8 billion). Annual investment is estimated at more than $4 billion.

Project design is set to be completed by 2012. Proposed technologies: German's Intercity-Express and Japan's Shinkansen.

The project will clear 4,170 hectares of land, forcing 9,480 families to relocate.

The project, which will be revisited during the one-month long session of the NA Vietnam's parliament starting on May 20, is envisaged to be implemented in two phases, with the Hanoi-Vinh and Nha Trang-HCMC sections completed by 2020, and the rest of the project by 2035.

The high-speed railway is expected to cut the time taken between Hanoi and HCMC to just five and a half hours non-stop from the current 29.5 to 41 hours. The existing one-meter wide railroad, opened in 1936 and upgraded in 1976, runs 1,729 kilometers along National Highway 1A. The train stops at many stations along the way.

Members of the NA Standing Committee were concerned, however, that the project would borrow $2.5 billion in foreign official development assistance (ODA) every year, but had not adequately planned repayments.

Ksor Phuoc, chairman of the NA Council of Ethnic Minorities, said: "I am not only worried by the shortage of money for investment but also by the unclear plan to get it repaid."

Meanwhile, Ha Van Hien, chairman of the NA Economic Committee, said his concern was that large areas of land needed for the project would displace nearly 10,000 households.

He also said the planned investment of $55.8 billion was made in 2008 and this could remarkably increase, especially given the rise in land values, when making more detailed plans for the project.

Profit, safety concerns

Phuoc said the government's plan submitted for discussion at the meeting had not identified the economic benefits that are needed to recoup the huge investments.

There should be detailed estimates of minimal benefits from the project, how long it would take to recover the investment and so on, he said.

Nguyen Duc Kien, the NA vice chairman, said the parliament could approve the project if the government provided details of the project's socio-economic benefits.

The planned express railway for train speeds of up to 300 kph (186.4 mph) also posed major threats to the passengers, deputies said.

"Many residents have ignored laws and it would affect passengers' lives if people were to throw stones at the trains or engage in similar acts of sabotage," Phuoc said, adding that passengers' safety should be ensured in all cases.

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