Rehabilitating old track is in favour, but challenges range from geographical to financial as Cambodia and Vietnam struggle to bring their railways up to speed

Cambodia and Thailand have been working towards a rail link for years and whilst logistics and jurisdiction are currently being agreed upon between the two countries, the reality on the ground is far less advanced.

Going West

Cambodia is currently rehabilitating its Western Line which links the border town of Poipet to the city of Sisophon a few miles inside the country. At the start of this year repair works had reached the old station in Sisophon with a test car brought from China carrying out tests on the track. At the same time in Poipet workers were still building concrete platforms to place the rails on.

The old stations in Sisophon and Poipet also need refurbishing but due to their colonial architecture it is more likely they will build new terminals. The old Poipet station is one kilometre away from the border and as the stated goal of the railway is to foster a new cross-border flow of goods and passengers placing a station right on the actual border should be high on the priority list.

Thailand is one of Cambodia’s main trading partners with bilateral trade valued at $6 billion in 2017. The vast majority of that is made up of exports from Thailand to Cambodia, with trade in the other direction valued at just $937 million.

The two countries have agreed to an ambitious goal of $15 billion in cross-border trade by 2020, according to the Thai Government. Soeng Sophary, spokesperson at the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce, says it is possible due to strong ties between both Governments.

Much of Cambodia’s 600 kilometres of railway is not operational, but the Southern Line connecting Phnom Penh to the seaside town of Sihanoukville was revived a few years ago and there is continued interest in reopening a route from the capital city to Battambang, 115 kilometres away from Poipet.Cracking the spine

For Vietnam rekindling links to other countries is not on the agenda just yet, the country is currently embroiled in internal discussions concerning the best way to reshape the coastline. The long, thin country has two major economic areas: the capital city Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh city near the Mekong Delta in the south.

They are joined by a single track, meter gauge, non-electrified railway that is 1,720 kilometres long. The total capacity for trains running the entire length of that railway is limited to 36 trains per day. The current subpar condition of the railway is due to damage suffered during the wars throughout the 20th Century, exacerbated by poor maintenance due to budget shortages with only minor upgrades in recent decades.

Infrastructure issues

There are several critical bottlenecks within the mountainous areas the North-South railway must get through, totalling about 44 kilometres in length and requiring one and a half hours to pass. The train’s speed is limited by the low curve radius: 39 kilometres have a radius of 300 kilometres and 215 kilometres have a radius of 300-800 kilometres. The speed of the trains is limited at other sections along the route as well, mainly at the tunnels where 22 out of the 27 have confined cross sections. There is also the issue of semi-collapsed tunnels and cave-ins that have caused structural integrity, in total 3.3 kilometres of track across 11 tunnels is in critical condition.

Another issue impacting the quality and competitiveness of the North-South railway is the excessive distance between stations. There is a total of 165 stations along the line with around half of those spaced out at intervals of ten to fifteen kilometres. A further 25 stations sit at even lonelier points on the track, limiting the number of trains that can be operated.

The short length of usable tracks at the stations poses more problems, 17 stations out of the total have two tracks and the length of tracks at all of the stations is roughly 350 to 400 metres.

When crossing tropical jungle terrain, tunnels are only half the story, out of 1,450 bridges along the route 600 are speed or load limited – again slowing down any and all travel. The bridges on the southern half of the route, from the coastal city of Danang to Ho Chi Minh city, are limited to just 3.6 t/m whilst permissible train load on bridges for the northern section from Hanoi to Danang is 4.2 t/m. Numerous other legacy issues have been allowed to pile up including:

  • Narrow track bed width
  • Outdated track components with numerous types of rail (P38, P43, P50 etc.) sleepers made from steel with elastic rigid fastening
  • Backwards and non-uniformed signalling and telecommunications system.

One final holdup to trackwork is the large number of illegal level crossings which suffocate safe train operation and also are causes of accidents.

The problem of informal construction plagues urban railways in Vietnam and the cross-border railway in Cambodia where concerns around rehabilitating displaced families caused delays for years. Relocating people who live on the train line in Banteay Meanchey province was still being discussed last year although updates on their situation have been few and far between. There are also unauthorised buildings along one kilometre of track in Poipet on the Thai border.

Potential rehabilitation plans in Vietnam

Plans that are currently being discussed in the country, by the Ministry of Transport in Vietnam, include:

  • Increasing the average speed for passenger trains up to 80/90 kph and 50/60 kph for freight trains
  • Increase line capacity to fifty trains a day
  • The Government of Vietnam has declared its intention to invest $320 million to improve the country’s railways.

Proposed solutions

  • Install new sidings on stations with only two tracks
  • Extend sidings to ensure usable length of 400 metres
  • Build new stations or halts on long open lines between adjacent stations
  • Renew track, realigning sections with sharp curves – especially the Hanoi to Vinh sections and Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh sections.

The Government and Vietnam Railways have four projects on the table with a decision around financing expected in the coming months.

  1. Rehabilitation of railway lines on the Hanoi to Vinh section.
  2. Rehabilitation of railway lines on the Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh section.
  3. Rehabilitation of unsecured tunnels and related works on the Vinh to Nha Trang section.
  4. Rehabilitation of unsecured bridge and fortification of anti-collision piers.

The total cost of these projects is estimated to be around $320 million. As mentioned above, the platforms at all the stations need to be lengthened. In all around thirty stations could have their sidings extended to ensure a usable length of 400 metres.

The proposition being debated would also see eight new stations and halts on long section between adjacent stations built on the Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh section. In addition, three new stations would be built on the Vinh to Nha Trang section as part of the tunnel rehabilitation work.

Restoring 111 bridges would involve building and fortifying anti-collision piers for six grand bridges and repairing track bed and renewing fifty kilometres of bridge approach station. In order to increase the average range of technical speed to 80 kph, around 250 kilometres of track would need to be renewed. Finally, around thirty kilometres of fence and feeder roads would be built along the railway’s right of ways to eliminate illegal crossings.

Challenges and opportunities

Beyond the biggest hurdle, which is of course the cost of the project, more specific challenges include the difficulty of carrying out construction work on a single track with high train density. Also, the parts of the track that require the most work are in remote areas which will cause serious access problems and render construction vehicles that aren’t specifically designed for the environment tough to deploy.

Whilst the promised land of extracting ever larger cross-border trade awaits Cambodia once they completely restore their Western and Southern lines, for Vietnam the current proposal presents a chance to upgrade and remarkably improve a backbone line that will literally gather all major economic areas along the spine of the country.

The volume of freight that can be carried between the major northern and southern cities of Vietnam could be increased by fivefold with a similar increase in passenger volume. New technology is being utilised throughout the region, Japan and China are investing in railways and Malaysia and Singapore are incorporating new technology, modern materials and construction devices. It is essential to prepare the country now for the same high-speed rail technology that is currently being implemented in four other countries in the region.