Vietnam's derailed express railway plan back on track, kind of

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Proposal re-submitted with small changes that critics say aren't enough

A carpenter stops working as a train goes by in downtown Hanoi. Despite the many accidents and deaths every year and warnings from authorities, people continue to live and make their livelihoods near the track. PHOTO: REUTERS

Three years after being rejected by the National Assembly, a US$56 billion north-south railway project has been proposed again with minor adjustments made for feasibility.

The new plan proposed by Vietnam National Railway to the Ministry of Transport and the central government would upgrade the existing north-south rail route first before building a new line.

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The proposal was based on a plan prepared by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) which said it had taken into account Vietnam's growth trajectory in the coming years.

One of the two parts of the proposal is investing $1.8 billion to upgrade the current one-meter single track rail connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The upgrade would aim to shorten the time to travel between Vietnam's two major cities from the current 29 hours to 25 hours and 24 minutes, with a capacity of 50 trains a day.

Trains will travel up to 90 kilometers per hour and the upgrade is expected to be completed between 2020 and 2025.

According to JICA, Vietnam does not need a high speed railway by 2030 thanks to air, road and railway transportation, which are also being upgraded.

However, after 2030, there will be an overload in road and air transportation and the most suitable way forward will be to build a high quality express railway, according to JICA.

If Vietnam's economy maintains an annual growth of 6 percent, 2030 will be the right time to start building an express railway, which would be completed a decade later.

The first stage of the express railway project includes the construction of two sections on which trains can travel with maximum speeds up to 350 kph (217 mph).

The first section is the 284-km Hanoi-Vinh line, which will cost $10.2 billion and be completed by 2036, according to the proposal. The other section is 366 km connecting HCMC and Nha Trang, scheduled for completion in 2031.

On these first two sections, VNR proposed beginning with the 36-km Long Thanh Thu Thiem section connecting HCMC and Dong Nai Province. Earlier, JICA had proposed to begin with the 46-km Hanoi Phu Ly section.

Uncertainties

Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted deputy minister of transport Nguyen Ngoc Dong as saying that the government will propose the plan to the National Assembly, Vietnam's parliament, but the timing of the proposal had yet to be decided.

According to a 2008 plan to build and upgrade high speed roads, the 1,940 km road connecting Hanoi and HCMC should be prioritized.

However, the government has not carried out the plan due to the high investment cost of more than VND279 trillion ($13.2 billion).

Meanwhile, JICA said Vietnam could afford the express railway plan while still being able to invest in other urgent transport projects.

The express railway plan attracted heated debate before being dismissed by the National Assembly in 2010 when the government proposed a total cost of $56 billion.

Lawmakers and experts were concerned by the high cost and the project's effectiveness, as well as fears of piling up debt for future generations.

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, said all four plans proposed by JICA are unfeasible.

"Traveling with speeds of up to 90 kph on a one-meter track is fatal," he was quoted by Nguoiduatin news website as saying.

"The world considers one-meter tracks "˜prehistoric antiques' and they are displayed in museums. Only a few countries still use it, mostly for goods or coal transportation because it is dangerous for passengers."

He proposed to widen the current track to 1.435 meters and shortening the travel between Hanoi and HCMC to 12-15 hours, with trains traveling from 150-200 kph.

He estimated a cost of $5 billion and a project completion time of only one year.

"This is a fast and non-expensive plan that saves the state budget," he said.

"[Other plans] would only present further drawbacks for Vietnam's railway system."

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