The slow train to Hanoi, a warning on ECRL

A developed country is not judged by how many poor people own cars, but how many rich people take public transport.

On a recent family trip to Vietnam, I noticed that the inner city of Ho Chi Minh had not changed much over the years, except that period buildings like the opera house and the old post office appeared well maintained despite being surrounded by heavy traffic and the smoky air from millions of two-stroke engine motorbikes.

Perhaps this is the biggest change – traffic and air pollution. Motorbikes have replaced the bicycles of 20 years ago. But despite the unhealthy air, there seemed to be a lot more people sitting on chairs by the pavement, eating and drinking in the open in true Vietnamese fashion.

My children, who were new to the city, found it strange and daunting, especially the traffic. They could not understand why every other motorist was blowing their horn. They had difficulty crossing the roads as they had never dealt with so many motorbikes in their lives. Even walking along the pavements was challenging as space was often taken over by parked motorbikes. Many motorists also ignored the green light for pedestrians to cross.

The overnight train to Da Nang started from a central station that was disappointingly small for a city as large as Ho Chi Minh. The station was not well kept, and lacked facilities for long-distance travellers and tourists.

Much like our KTM services, it seemed obvious that trains were not the first transportation choice for local travellers. The station and the accompanying facilities reflected the travel demand levels and the kind of market it serves, which to my simple analysis, was the bottom quarter of the travelling public.

The train trip was supposed to be the highlight of our holiday. We had been looking forward to the first-class cabin which we had paid for, but after spending 45 minutes waiting in a dusty and crowded departure area, our expectations dwindled.

Perhaps it was unfair of us to imagine that our cabin would be anywhere near the Deutsche Bahn sleeper we took two years ago on a similar trip in Germany over the Christmas and New Year holidays. But by the time we had settled into our four-berth cabin, my wife could not help but notice several cockroaches crawling up the wall.

High-speed rail

I later discovered that the train runs on a single-track rail line, with long stops at many intermediate stations to allow for passing trains. No wonder a 935km journey took 16 hours – an average journey speed of 58km an hour.

If this can be taken as a real-life example of what our East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) would be – a single-track railway over a distance of 688km between Kuala Lumpur and Kota Bharu via Kuala Terengganu at a total cost of nearly RM100 billion – then the obvious question to ask is, why bother with the ECRL?

Vietnam, which in some parts is quite similar to our east coast, has a direct train line of about 1,720km between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. In comparison, the road distance between Kota Bharu and Johor Bahru in the south is only 546km. Vietnam’s long strip of coastline has a population of over 95 million people, compared to 8.25 million for Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and Johor put together. Even when you add the population of Selangor plus Kuala Lumpur – about six million in total – into the ECRL travel demand equation, the population capture is still very low.

It is therefore very hard to justify the need for a railway line of such a distance at such a high cost. The absence of any large-scale economic activities in the east coast is another obvious factor that does not support this project.

The truth is, the east coast is sparsely populated when compared to the Ho Chi Minh-to-Hanoi corridor. The coastal areas of Vietnam have at least another 31 intermediate towns with a population size of over 100,000.

Vietnam’s agricultural sector is also large, very productive, and continues to be active. For example, the country is now ahead of Thailand in terms of rice production. It is also second only to Brazil in coffee production, producing over 1.65 million tonnes per annum. Its manufacturing capabilities are scattered along this corridor and it is experiencing rapid growth. Unlike Malaysia, Vietnam has no problem with labour supply in any sector of its economy.

Given the current state of infrastructure facilities needed by its large population base, high economic activities and high growth, the Ho Chi Minh-to-Hanoi corridor represents a more viable route for the construction of a high-speed rail.

We left Ho Chi Minh at about 9pm and reached Da Nang, almost midway to Hanoi, the next day at about 2pm. Da Nang, with a population of about one million, is a popular seaside city with a long beach front favoured by locals and foreigners alike.

The immediate contrast between Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang is that the latter is more of a booming city. There are countless tower blocks under construction within the city as well as along the beach front where we stayed for two nights. There is also a long street fronted by many seafood restaurants, cafes and clubs.

The city is vibrant, modern and appeals to international tourists. In fact, the 30km coast line that runs from Da Nang to Hoi An, an old heritage city, is dotted with popular international and five-star holiday resorts. It boasts five new resorts and golf courses under construction. In a word, the area is rapidly growing.

How I wish our sleepy east coast states could be like that.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.