Vietnam railways set for fast track upgrade

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New draft plan includes sections of controversial express railway line already rejected by National Assembly

A mechanic walks between trains in the train yard of the Hanoi train station in Hanoi. Vietnam is planning a major upgrade of its railway network. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The Ministry of Transport has announced a draft blueprint to build a broad gauge railway connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but the plan also includes elements of the controversial express railway plan that the parliament has rejected as costly and ineffective.

Deputy Transport Minister Nguyen Ngoc Dong said the draft plan has three main elements. It would upgrade the existing gauge railway, build a double-track broad gauge one that would allow trains to run at between 160 and 200 km per hour, and two express railway sections that that were originally supposed to host bullet trains.

"The plan is being finalized before the ministry publicizes it and polls public opinions," he told Vietweek.

Currently, it takes between 29-33 hours to cover the 1,726 kilometers between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on the one-meter, single-track gauge railway line developed more than a hundred years ago during the French colonial period. The travel time actually has been reduced from 72 hours more than a decade ago thanks to a shorter route with fewer stops.

Dong said the total cost for upgrading the current railway line is estimated to be around VND40 trillion (US$1.9 billion). It will mainly serve cargo trains when the double-track railway is completed.

It will shorten travel time between Hanoi and HCMC to 21 hours, with trains able to reach maximum speeds of between 80-90 kph, after repairing the route at dangerous curves and installing barriers at crossroads.

"We will seek funding from different sources, including donors," Dong said, adding that the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) already offered low-interest loans for several projects to upgrade railway bridges and crossings.

He said the project will prioritize the repairs of dangerous sections by 2020 before renovating locomotives and carriages.

In June, Ba Ria-Vung Tau-based architect Tran Dinh Ba, who became well-known in 2009 after offering a bet with Vietnam Airlines on the feasibility of a shorter, more direct air route between Hanoi and HCMC, wrote to transport minister Dinh La Thang, requesting that the ministry gets rid of the old railway line and build a double-track one.

A single track line is one that is used by trains traveling in both directions, while a double track has two tracks for trains traveling in opposite directions.

Commenting on the proposal, Dong said it is necessary that the current one is upgraded and a new one built. 

The current state of Vietnam's railways has caused the sector to lose much of the transportation business to trucks and planes.

Official statistics show that the railway's share of cargo transportation plunged from 27.9 percent in 1996 to 4.1 percent in 2011, while its share of the passenger transport market plummeted from 7.9 to 1.8 percent over the same period.

In a recent report, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said Japan is expected to face stiff competition from South Korea and China, which may compete for the project to build the double-track railway with a lower-speed technology.

Thailand's railway system will undergo a major reconstruction scheme that would include the use of China-made high-speed trains to service the increasing volume of cargo and passengers, the China Daily reported.

Express railway

In its latest proposal, the transport ministry says it still plans to build sections of an express railway connecting Hanoi and HCMC that had attracted major controversy when introduced three years ago.

During a session in 2010, a majority of lawmakers rejected the proposed $56 billion express railway project.

Those who voted against the plan said they did so because it was economically unsound. They asked the government to further study the feasibility of the project.

The $56 billion mega-project would have built a 1,570-kilometer (975-mile) track that would cut HCMC-Hanoi travel time to less than six hours. The first phase was slated for completion in 2020 and the second 15 years later.

In the latest proposal, the transport ministry has requested for approval to build two sections of this express railway by 2030, including a 234-kilometer section between Phu Ly and Vinh in the north and a 366-kilometer section between HCMC and Nha Trang in the south.

The total cost of the two sections is more than VND406 trillion ($19.26 billion).

There is chance for Japanese companies to supply sturdy elevated tracks that can service freight trains, as well as traffic control and fee collection systems, even if the Shinkansen technology slated for use in the original express railway plan is dropped, Asahi Shimbun quoted JICA sources as saying.

The sources also said there remains a possibility that the railway will be able to accommodate Shinkansen-style trains in the future if tracks are laid in a linear fashion.

However, Jonathan Pincus, a former HCMC-based economist with the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, said Vietnam does not need a bullet train.

"[All Vietnam] needs [is] a good conventional freight train to move goods and to link up the various regions of the country economically," Pincus told Vietweek.

"This would make it cheaper for companies to build factories outside of the major cities. It would also remove the need to build so many small ports."

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