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A mournful deal

A mournful deal

Monday, July 02, 2012, 12:28 GMT+7

Vietnam sold off its serrated railway and trains with cog wheels, icons of the global railway industry that ran to hilly Da Lat, for only US$650,000 in 1975, while a similar machine by electricity is now priced at $320 million – 492 times higher.

Part 1: The first railway route in VietnamPart 2: Hanoi – Lang Son railway route costs blood, laborPart 3: Bright outlook conceived with trans-Vietnam routePart 4: Villages desolated for forced railway laborPart 5: Unforgettable trains Part 6: A mournful dealPart 7: War-torn railways after liberation day

It is not merely an economic issue, but above all a brilliant symbol of the railway industry, marking a milestone of the development of the nation, that was sold off in the mournful deal, recalled Pham Khuong, chief of the Da Lat railway station from 1975 to 1993.

He added that local authorities of the central highland province Lam Dong, home of the serrated railroad route from Phan Rang to Da Lat, managed to save the route from being completely shut down, but failed to persuade central authorities to change their decision on the sale.

Hopeless efforts

The Furka locomotives, which used cog wheels to run on the serrated railway in Da Lat, returned to full service 22 years ago, but in the hilly Jungfraujoch route in the Swiss Alps.

After plying the hills between Phan Rang and Da Lat for 42 years, the railway route halted services in 1969 because of war. Six years later, soon after liberation, the route was restored and 27 trains were made before the decision to stop and begin disassembling them for sale was made.

In April 1975, Pham Khuong was assigned to take over the Da Lat railway station and he quickly repaired and modified the locomotives to run with coal instead of mazut fuel oil, as in the original design. Two months later, the locomotives resumed working and ran 70km from Da Lat to Eo Gio, Krongpha and Tan My, where a bridge had been destroyed during the war.

Then, the trains carried workers on tea farms and state officials free of charge.

By late 1975, a decision from central authorities ordered a halt to route services and the breaking-down of all ties, tracks and rails to modify the Binh Dinh – Quang Nam section of the trans-Viet route.

Authorities of Lam Dong were stunned by the decision, said Khuong. They decided to chop down forest trees and made 230,000 ties to prepare for an exchange.

But the authorities rejected the lumber and stuck to their decision.

So, the locomotives with their cog wheels stopped working on the serrated rail. Khuong sent a second proposal, offering to disassemble 70 percent of the ties and tracks and keep the remainder, which do not fit with the trans-Viet route, in the hope of recovering the material.

But this was also rejected, and the railway soon disappeared.

What was usable was used, and the rest was removed and recycled for construction sites. Locals also joined in to eradicate anything left for scrap sales, Khuong recalled.


The locomotive HG 3/4 DFB 1 Furkahorn, recovered from Da Lat Vietnam, pulls the train along the Gletsch – Oberwald section (Photo in courtesy of Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway)

The past undersold

All seven Furka locomotives with cog wheels were left useless at stations Da Lat, Thap Cham and Krongpha.

But the assets are treasures to Switzerland, as the nation has a serrated railway but has no old locomotives able to run on it. Swiss engineers heard of the news and came to Da Lat to look at the trains. The first potential buyer, Ralph Schorno, came in early 1988.

Among the seven locomotives, he selected four, as well as other wagons manufactured by the US. A bargain followed, with assistance from the Swiss embassy in Hanoi.

The deal was initially set at US$1 million, but the price was soon lowered to $650,000.

While the deal between Hanoi and the Swiss was taking place, authorities in Lam Dong held consecutive meetings to discuss possible ways to keep or preserve the route.

In August 1990, when a three day meeting was held in Da Lat, the Swiss embassy sent vehicles to the city to carry away the assets under the approval of central authorities. The locomotives and wagons and ties and tracks were transported from Da Lat to a port in Vung Tau to be shipped to Switzerland.

Only two months after their departure, Pham Khuong received postcards from Ralph Schorno featuring pictures of the trains running in Jungfraujoch. The Swiss even solemnly attached an engraved placque on the locomotive describing its origin from Vietnam.

In 1991, authorities of Lam Dong and Switzerland signed a memorandum of understanding to build the serrated railway route from Phan Rang – Da Lat, run by electricity, at an investment fee of $250 million. However, the deal fell apart because Lam Dong demanded that the Swiss collect the US$250 million project over 30 years, while the Swiss wanted a term of 60 years.

In 2007, another project to rebuild the serrated railway route was mooted, with an investment of $320 million, but it has thus far progressed no further than the planning stage.

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