In decline, what’s the future for Vietnam’s historic North-South railway?

Vietnam’s North-South railway has remained much the same since it was first built 85 years ago, with the iconic line highlighting the halting nature of Vietnamese infrastructure projects as plans to modernise have gone without progress for more than a decade

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March 2, 2021
In decline, what’s the future for Vietnam’s historic North-South railway?
The second generation S1:S2 trains with air-conditioned coaches made by Vietnam Railways in 2002. Photo: Đường sắt Việt Nam

Not much is going on at Ga Sài Gòn; the final destination of 1,762 kilometres of train track that connects Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The station’s heyday has passed, with the thwacking of a ball on concrete offering a clue as to what is currently the most populated area on the premises – a tennis court – while free-range chickens meander in the shaded parking area. 

It’s a quiet afternoon. Vendors sit at vacant drink stalls outside the station. Baking in the heat, an out-of-service Tự Lực (or Self Reliant) 141 Mikado steam locomotive is displayed on a raised platform. 

Vietnam’s North-South railway is often referred to as the Reunification Express, with the line reopened in 1976 following the fall of Saigon the year prior. After years of the line being battered by war, it was a Tự Lực that took the first journey between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, symbolically reunifying the country after 21 years of separation. 

“I’m always struck by how effectively it’s possible to recount the modern history of Vietnam through the ups and downs of the railway network – one mirrors the other,” railway historian Tim Doling told the Globe.

Following that trend, it’s been a hard year for the Vietnam Railways Corporation (VNR). A growth in affordable alternatives to train travel over the years, not least budget airlines, and most recently the Covid-19 pandemic and flooding in Central Vietnam, has resulted in the biggest slump in the company’s history. In 2019, the number of passengers taking the train was already down 6.9% year-on-year. Pandemic restrictions have only worsened this, with VNR recording a loss of approximately $60 million in 2020.

The struggles have continued in the new year, as the resurgence of Covid-19 in Vietnam prior to Tet holiday – the busiest season for train travel – has resulted in economic losses as tickets have been returned en-masse and train itineraries cut due to a lack of passengers. Vu Anh Minh, chairman of the VNR board of members, is pushing for urgent restructuring in 2021 to keep the railway from going under. 

Construction of the first iteration of Saigon station.
A bustling Saigon Station in the mid-1960s.
A Tự Lực on display at Vinh Station on 25 February, 2011. Photo: Tim Doling

Rough years aren’t anything new for Vietnam’s North-South railway. The line has been mired with safety issues since it was reopened post-reunification and, due to a chronic lack of modernisation, is in danger of being stuck in the past.

Plans to upgrade the line to an electric rail have officially been in the works since 2007, although no progress has been made. The proposed high-speed electric railway would shorten the journey from Hanoi to Saigon from 29 and half hours to as short as five hours and 20 minutes. But although Vietnamese planners have long hyped a country-wide modernisation of its railways, that goal has, at least until now, never been accomplished. In most places, it hasn’t even begun as advertised. 

The North-South Railway is symbolic of this lack of follow-through. The slowly decaying colonial-era relic has been pushed to the brink by the added pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic. The industry, already in decline, has taken a nosedive. 

Shoring up the financial woes of the railway is vital in order to attract the private investors needed to fund the long-overdue modernisation of the railway. More immediately, the jobs of the 11,300 employees of VNR are on the line, many of whom went for periods without pay or on reduced salaries during early 2020.

“The problem is that the railway remains essentially a single-track narrow-gauge network of colonial construction which suffered 30 years of catastrophic destruction followed by another 15 years of ‘make do and mend,'” Doling said. 

The North-South Railway through time

Construction of the first sections of the North–South railway began in 1899 with the full Hanoi-Saigon link put into operation in 1936. 

In 1895, the outgoing Governor-General of French Indochina, Jean Marie de Lanessan, urged his successors to build railways connecting the expanse of Indochina. A line connecting Hanoi to Saigon was prioritised as it was seen as the “backbone of Indochina”.

It was Paul Doumer, de Lanessan’s successor, later assassinated in 1932 while serving as the president of France, who put this plan into action. Soon after his appointment, he put in a proposal for what would become the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway and the North-South railway, then known as the Transindochinois

The “Doumer Plan”, as it was referred, “imagined a rail-road that would promote commercial interests between colonizer and colonized, improve disaster relief throughout the colony, and aid in military preparedness”, according to historian David Del Testa.

Thanh Hóa, 21 April 1972 – collapsed Hàm Rồng Bridge after being attacked by American aircraft. Photo: Đường sắt Việt Nam
Hà Nội, August 1967 – Long Biên Bridge damaged by an American aircraft. Photo: Đường sắt Việt Nam

Event goers held sticks of incense and Vietnamese flags in the air as the locomotives rolled into Hanoi and Saigon stations with portraits of Ho Chi Minh attached to their fronts

However, as Del Testa describes, despite paternalistic thinking propelling its construction, this railway project was not just supported by colonisers. “Even strident Vietnamese critics of colonialism, such as the early twentieth-century patriots Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh, had applauded railroads as necessary to the development of modern nations”. 

Soon after the line was completed in 1936, in a ceremony officiated by Emperor Bao Dai and acting Governor-General of Indochina Rene Robin, the railway would quickly become enmeshed in war.  

The Viet Minh, the independence coalition formed by revolutionary leader and future Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh, targeted the railway to sabotage Japanese forces who utilised the line during their invasion of Indochina beginning in 1940, using similar methods later when warring with the French in the fight for independence. The line continued to take hits during the American War when the North-South railway would become a target of bombardments for both sides of the conflict. American bombing campaigns like Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Linebacker targeted railway bridges, creating a great deal of destruction. 

To reopen the line after the country’s reunification, repair crews had to fix 27 tunnels, 158 stations, a heaping 1,370 switches and almost as many bridges. Despite the high workload, by December 31, 1976, the line was back up and running.  

“Trains set out simultaneously from North [Hanoi] and South [Saigon] and both arrived on January 4, 1977,” Doling described. Images of the trains’ first arrivals during this emblematic reunification show crowds celebrating their successful journeys. 

Event goers held sticks of incense and Vietnamese flags in the air as the locomotives rolled into Hanoi and Saigon stations with portraits of Ho Chi Minh attached to their fronts.

Hà Nội, 31 December 1976. The first Unification Express at Hà Nội Station before departure for Saigon. Photo: Đường sắt Việt Nam
The first Unification Express arrive at Saigon Station from Hanoi. 4 January, 1977.

The Hanoi-Saigon link post reunification

Although reopening the line proved a symbolic feat, it has fallen into disrepair since. Safety concerns also persist with the majority of lines at grade – meaning railway junctions that intersect roads at ground level, passing through dense neighbourhoods, rural environments and industrial zones. 

“On average, there are 1.85 crossing points for each kilometre of railway, which is the reason for the very high risk of accidents,” Doan Duy Hoach, deputy general director of VNR told An ninh Thu do.  

A report from Vietnam’s National Traffic Safety Committee showed that in the first half of 2019, 75 train accidents occured. During this time frame, 53 people were killed and 30 were injured, in a 22.9% increase of train-related accidents compared to 2018.

“The transformation needed to turn it into a modern, double-track standard-gauge network of international standard will be massively expensive, particularly since, for safety reasons, a way must be found to eradicate the existing 8,000-plus flat crossings,” Doling stated.

A train passes through Saigon’s densely populated Phu Nhuan District. Photo: Martin Misiak

For the most part, the Hanoi-Saigon railway hasn’t changed much in the 85 years since it was first put into action. Few railways in Vietnam have been built in over four decades, with projects continually announced but rarely brought to fruition said James Clark, a journalist covering railway infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia. 

“It shows a pattern over the years,” Clark told the Globe

The proposed North-South electric rail has also fallen into this pattern. The 2007 announcement of the electric rail stated that construction of the new line would begin in 2010 – in 2010, this plan was cancelled with the intent to regroup in 2012. In the years since, more plans for construction have been laid out, without real progress. In the most recent announcement in  2019, the Ministry of Transport (MoT) claimed that it was in the preparation stage with an investment of $58.7 billion.

If the 2019 plan were to be followed, construction of the new line would be created in two phases. The first phase would start from the far ends of the line, building new standard-gauge tracks from Hanoi to Vinh, and from Saigon–Nha Trang, with plans for completion in 2032. The second phase would begin in 2030, connecting Vinh to Nha Trang by 2045.

The old railway took an ambling route – the path of least resistance. The new route would build bridges, tunnels and viaducts would be built in urban areas to diminish the dangers at flat crossings

The current North-South train runs at a top speed of around 60 kilometres per hour, making train travel a lengthy and undesirable prospect for passengers – especially when domestic air travel is competitively priced. To get from Saigon to Nha Trang, a popular coastal destination 433 kilometres north of the city, a journey on the train takes roughly eight hours with ticket costs ranging from $15–$78. A flight takes one hour with fares starting at $43. 

“The speed [of the North-South line] hasn’t changed in 80 years,” Clark said. “You can look at the map and you think Nha Trang is not so far away, but it’s an eight hour trip [from Saigon on the current train]. But if there’s a high speed train, or even just a fast train … it could become a three hour trip.” 

The proposed new line would also be shortened to bypass the majority of the current at-grade line, getting rid of dangerous flat-crossings.

“The new railway would actually be shortened by a couple of hundred kilometres. The old railway took an ambling route – the path of least resistance,” Clark explained. “The new route would build bridges, tunnels and viaducts would be built in urban areas to diminish the dangers at flat crossings.”

But beyond the massive investment needed to overhaul Vietnam’s colonial-era rail infrastructure, the train cars themselves are outdated and soon to be forced off the rails by government decree. All of the present-day diesel-reliant rolling stock needs to be replaced at a cost of $296.5 million, according to VNR. But the procurement of new coaches places the state in a bind given that they would have to fit the current one-metre gauge, and would therefore not be able to operate on any new electric rails.

“You don’t want to start buying new diesel engines and carriages for this one-metre gauge railway only to be building a new railway,” Clark said. “They should just be trying to make the most of these old railways and get on with building a new one. Otherwise it seems like it’s going to be a double waste of money.” 

But regardless of these convoluted plans for the future of the North-South line, Doling is hopeful about the railway’s future in Vietnam. 

“The railways have a long and very distinguished history of service to the Vietnamese nation,”  Doling said. “I have no doubt that in the coming years we’ll continue to see many more improvements in Vietnamese rail infrastructure.”

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