Death at the crossroads

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Carpenters work while sitting on the train tracks in downtown Hanoi. Despite the many accidents and deaths every year and warnings from authorities, people continue to live and make their livelihoods near railways.

Hundreds are hit every year by trains, falling prey to a combination of low awareness and illegal grade crossings

A young woman fatally hit by a train Monday (February 20) became the latest victim of Vietnam's century-old railroad system that kills hundreds of people every year.

The accident happened at around 9:30 a.m. in the central province of Quang Ngai when train HLG2 was en route from Binh Dinh to Hanoi.

The crew reported the accident to the local polices who are trying to identify the woman who had no identification on her.

On February 17 a couple was killed in the north-central province of Nghe An just one day after their marriage by a train going from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.

Nguyen Van Truong, 29, and Dau Thi Then, 22, were on a motorbike on a country road in Nghi Loc District and crossed the railroad track without noticing the train.

Though the engineer slammed the brakes, the train did not stop in time, and dragged the couple and their bike more than 20 meters before coming to a halt.

State-owned Vietnam Railways (VR) operates one of the world's few remaining meter gauge (1 meter) railroads still in use.

Vietnam has no monorail, while a plan to build a multi-billion-dollar modern express railroad route from Hanoi to HCMC has been suspended.

VR's total of 2,600 kilometers of rail is mostly at surface level with innumerable road crossings that have no barriers or warning lights, mostly created illegally by local residents.

According to the Railway Safety Committee, there were more than 500 accidents last year in which 271 people died and 353 others were injured. The number of accidents and deaths were both up from the previous year.

This year the media has been warning about a further increase in casualties.

On February 4 a train hit two men on a motorbike who were crossing the track in Da Nang. The engineer, Pham Huy Phong, said they were so engrossed in talking to each other that they did not notice the train. He braked and honked but in vain.

Pham Van Hoang, 21, died on the spot while Doan Ngoc Phu, 24, was seriously injured.

In another grisly accident the same day, a train hit a truck in the coastal resort town of Nha Trang, severing the truck and killed the driver, 42-year-old Cao Xuan Thanh.

Job from hell

A train engineer, who wished to remain unnamed, told Vietweek that his job is one of the most difficult because he has to regularly see people getting killed or maimed.

"We often get drunk after work and go to bed hoping we can sleep.

"Make the calculation"¦ more than two hundred deaths per year means there is a fatal accident waiting for you on this or the next trip.

"Almost every train's wheels see human blood once or twice a year. It's really scary."

He blamed the accidents on people's low awareness: "There was an accident a few years ago when five men got drunk and lay on the track at night. All of them were beheaded by a train."

Tran Huu Chien, director of the Saigon Railway Management Company, said he constantly suffers from stress due to accidents.

"It is a nightmare to be woken up at night by a phone call because it means there has been an accident somewhere," he told Vietweek.

Apart from the danger posed by illegal crossings, Chien said many drivers also ignore the signals and barriers at grade crossings.

"Some people rush across hoping to beat the arriving train. One of my men was seriously injured recently while trying to put up the barrier when he was hit by a motorbike driver who was attempting to cross."

Local authorities should help maintain railway security by severely punishing drivers who ignore warnings at grade crossings, he said.

"Some people push past a barrier that is being lowered to block road traffic and cross the tracks. Our personnel do not have the authority to penalize them."

Local authorities should also prevent illegal crossings and construction in the railway safety corridor.

Struggling with accidents

In August 2011, the government issued a resolution on cooperation between local administrations and the VR for ensuring railway safety.

It recommended removing illegal railroad crossings and constructions in the railway safety corridor, and required local authorities to post personnel at accident-prone illegal crossings to warn users until they are removed.

According to the Saigon Railway Management Company, almost no province or city did the latter, except for HCMC where youth volunteers were given the task.

Pham Van Binh, head of the VR's Railway Safety Committee, said 77 percent of railroad accidents last year happened at grade crossings, mostly created illegally by local residents.

On average, there is a grade crossing, legal or illegal, every 400 meters, he said.

"About 86 percent of the more than 1,400 legal crossings do not meet safety requirements," he admitted, adding there are more than 4,800 illegal crossings.

Ha Ngoc Truong, deputy chairman of the HCMC Bridge, Road, Railway and Ports Association, said there have been several studies to identify crossings that need to be replaced by overpasses or equipped with barriers and warning lights.

"The best choice is to build overpasses. However, a meter costs VND10-15 billion (US$480,000-720,000). It would cost even more to build road overpasses," he said.

The construction of safety barriers along tracks has been progressing slowly, with the VR only building 53 kilometers in 2009 and 2010.

A plan to either improve the 9.5-kilometer railroad section in HCMC or move the city railway station to nearby Binh Duong Province has also proved controversial.

In 2007, the city recommended that the central government should move the station to Binh Duong and it was accepted the same year. This was expected to ease traffic congestion in the city and reduce accidents at grade crossings.

But in 2008 the Ministry of Transport struck down the plan, saying efficiency would be diminished if there was no station in HCMC.

The city people's committee, the municipal administration, recently suggested raising the tracks above the surface to ease road traffic.

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