Vietnam is delaying plans to build a north-south express railway system with trains that travel 350 kilometers an hour, diverting funds to a broad gauge railway capable of running trains at about half that speed.
The 1.435-meter, double-track and electric railway will allow trains to run at between 160 and 200 km per hour, transport minister Dinh La Thang said at a Hanoi meeting with Japanese sponsor JICA last weekend, Saigon Tiep Thi reported.
Vietnam currently uses a one-meter, single-track gauge railway. The system, which was developed more than a hundred years ago during the French colonial period, does not allow trains to run at high speeds. Trips between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City take 29 hours each way, which has been reduced from 72 hours more than a decade ago thanks to a shorter route with fewer stops.
Experts from JICA said at the meeting they estimated the new broad gauge railway would triple both the number of passengers and the amount of freight on the north-south route.
It would cost around US$40 billion to renovate locomotives and carriages for trains to operate at 200 km/hour on old railroads.
"That is roughly the same expense for building a brand new railway," they said.
Japanese experts said a north-south express railway would be practical financially by 2030, and suggested Vietnam begin with two sections the 280 kilometers between Hanoi and the north central town of Vinh, and the 360 kilometers separating Ho Chi Minh City from the south central resort town of Nha Trang.
Building the two sections will cost $21.4 billion, expected to be 6.3 percent of the country's GDP in 2030.
Along with the construction of the new broad gauge railway, Vietnam also plans to improve its current railways to guarantee speeds of 90 km/h for passenger trains and 60 km/h for freight trains, which will cost around $1.8 billion.
"The north-south railway has become out of date after more than 100 years in use. But the country is still poor so we cannot throw away a torn shirt as we still need to wear it every day," Thang said at the meeting.
The current state of Vietnam's trains has caused them to lose much of the transport business to trucks and planes.
Official statistics show that the railway 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.
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