September 2, 2016 is an auspicious day in the history of Vietnam’s railways, marking the 80th anniversary of the completion of the “Transindochinois” or North-South railway line.
Originally the brainchild of Indochina Governor General Jean Marie Antoine de Lanessan (June 1891-December 1894), the “Transindochinois” did not become a reality until the arrival of his successor Paul Doumer (13 February 1897-October 1902), who made it the central component of his grand “1898 Programme.”
While several of Indochina’s early railway and tramway lines were farmed out to private companies to build and operate, the Transindochinois was conceived from the outset as part of the government-run Chemins de Fer de l’Indochine (CFI) network, commonly known as the Réseaux non concedes (non-conceded networks). Built in five separate stages, the 1,730km line took nearly 40 years to realize.
The first three sections were completed before the outbreak of World War I. These were the 319km section from Hà Nội to Vinh (1903-1905), the 169km section from Tourane (Đà Nẵng) to Đông Hà (1906-1908) and the 411km section from Saigon to Nha Trang (1904-1913).
To haul trains on these earliest sections of line, the CFI initially purchased a fleet of Société Franco-Belge 4-4-0 locomotives, known due to their distinctive profile as “Américaines.” However, these were quickly supplemented by newer, more powerful 4-6-0 locomotives built by the Société française de constructions mécaniques (SFCM), the Anciens Établissements J F Cail and later also the Mitsui Company of Japan. Known popularly as “10-wheels,” they quickly took over most passenger services, relegating the older “Américaines” mainly to freight duties.
The earliest passenger carriages were built mainly from wood and offered rather basic facilities in all classes, but by the 1920s the CFI had introduced into service a range of new metallic vehicles with improved suspension, more comfortable seating in second class, and even plush armchairs in some first class compartments. However, the majority of those using the line were passengers of limited means who were obliged to endure long journeys in what amounted to little more than luggage vans.
Between 1923 and 1928, in order to meet the increasing demand for faster services on the completed sections of line, the CFI ordered from the Fives-Lille and J. F. Cail companies a fleet of second-generation superheated 4-6-0 “Ten wheel” locomotives, which were shared between the four completed sections of the North-South line and came to dominate passenger services until the arrival in the early 1930s of the “Pacific” locomotives.
Construction of the fourth and fifth sections of the Transindochinois – the 303km line from Vinh to Đông Hà (1927) and the final 524km section of line from Tourane (Đà Nẵng) to Nha Trang (1935-1936) – was delayed, firstly by war in Europe and then in the late 1920s as a result of the Indochina government’s brief flirtation with the idea of building a second, inland North-South rail route via Thakhek, Stung Treng and Kratie. Only after the abandonment of the latter project due to the onset of the Great Depression could the Transindochinois scheme finally get back on track.
In 1933, as construction of the final Tourane-Nha Trang section resumed, the CFI purchased a fleet of new superheated SACM-Graffenstaden 4-6-2 “Pacific” locomotives, which immediately took over all mainline passenger services, becoming the most prestigious locomotives on the CFI network.
In anticipation of increased traffic following completion of the Transindochinois, CFI even resorted to “filching” the fastest and most powerful locomotives from neighbouring Cambodia – following the reversion of the Phnom Penh-Mongkolborey line to government control in 1935, the CFI embarked upon a controversial locomotive exchange, aimed at “making better use” of Phnom Penh’s Hanomag machines, which they deemed too powerful for the Cambodian railway but ideal for the North-South line. By 1936, seven Hanomag 4-6-2 “Pacifics,” 10 Hanomag 2-10-0 “Decapods” and three Hanomag 2-8-2T locomotives had all been shipped to Saigon. In return, Phnom Penh received a motley collection of ageing Société Franco-Belge 4-4-0 “Américaines,” J. F. Cail 4-6-0 “Ten wheels” and Société Franco-Belge 2-6-2 “Prairies.”
On 2 September 1936, the two construction teams met at Hảo Sơn (km 1221) in modern Phú Yên province, putting in place the final piece of rail which not only connected Tourane with Nha Trang, but also marked the completion of the entire North-South line between Hà Nội and Sài Gòn. Officiating at this occasion were Indochina Governor General René Robin, who had personally sought to fast-track the final stages of construction, and the Emperor Bảo Đại. Later in the month, when Governor General Robin’s posting came to an end, he and his family became the first passengers to make the entire 42 hour, 1,730km journey from Hà Nội to Saigon on a special train, this being the first leg of their long journey back to France.
On 1 October 1936, the last stretch of line from Đại Lãnh to Hảo Sơn was officially inaugurated with the installation of a lineside monument at km 1221, 1km south of Hảo Sơn station. The Emperor Bảo Đại once again presided, along with Acting Governor A Sylvestre and Marshal Long Yun, Governor of Yunnan. The French inscription on the monument read: “Here, the Transindochinois, conceived by Paul Doumer to seal the unity of Indochina, was completed on 2 September 1936 with the connection of the railway from the Chinese border with the railway from Saigon.”
On 2 September 1936 at Hảo Sơn (km 1221) in modern Phú Yên province, Governor General René Robin and Emperor Bảo Đại put in place the final piece of rail which not only connected Tourane with Nha Trang, but also marked the completion of the entire North-South line between Hà Nội and Sài Gòn.
On the same day, trains set out simultaneously from both Saigon and Hà Nội, heralded at both ends by grand military reviews involving processions of ethnic groups in their traditional costumes.
Then, in the seven days which followed, the launch of through train services between Hà Nội and Saigon was commemorated by special celebrations in both Hà Nội and Saigon, funded by a special grant of over 1 million francs. In Saigon, the authorities staged on 2 October 1936 a “Grand Gala Evening” at the Municipal Theatre, attended by Acting Governor Sylvestre. This was followed by a week-long sports tournament known as the “Transindochinois Cup,” which was held in the Jardin de la Ville (now Tảo Đàn Park), and featured cycling, football and rugby. A special commemorative stamp was also issued by the Saigon Post Office to mark the occasion.
The completion of the “Transindochinois” in September 1936 made it possible to travel 1,730km from Hà Nội to Saigon in 40 hours, on luxurious trains pulled by state-of-the-art “Pacific,” “Decapod” and “Ten wheel” locomotives. The modern and comfortable carriages offered 1st-, 2nd-, 3rd- and 4th-class seating, sleeper compartments and a buffet restaurant, as well as facilities for post and baggage.
Sadly, the “Transindochinois” functioned for just four years before Japanese forces invaded and occupied Indochina, imposing a significant reduction in civilian rail services in favour of military usage. Then, starting with the Allied bombing of 1944 and continuing through the devastation of the First Indochina War, the North-South railway line suffered catastrophic damage.
In 1952, officiating at the transfer of the remaining operational sections of the Réseaux non concedes to the State of Việt Nam administration, a senior French railway official recalled fondly the pre-war “golden era” of the CFI network:
“The globe-trotter of 1939, making the trip from Hanoï to Säigon in carriages comparable to European wagons-lits, and with a restaurant of repute, could compare our railway favourably with those of Europe or America.”
The Second Indochina War inflicted further ruinous destruction on the North-South line. This was followed after Reunification by several decades of economic hardship which precluded any major upgrade of rail facilities.
While some aspects of today’s rail services may still fall somewhat short of those offered during the “golden age” of long-distance rail travel, the national rail operator Đường Sắt Việt Nam has in recent years sought to create an efficient and competitive national rail network, with the North-South line as its focus.