Hanoi metro trouble back on agenda
Once expected to be a driving force for Hanoi’s socio-economic development and a solution to traffic jams, the Cat Linh-Hadong metro line has ground to a screeching halt, and prospects remain dim, triggering public indignation over culpability allocation.
No noise of construction work has been heard and no progress has been seen at the 12 stations along the 13 kilometre stretch of the Cat Linh-Hadong metro line, while unused carriages are weathering the scorching sun and heavy rains. This is the situation that has been plaguing Hanoi’s first ever metro system in 2020.
The stagnation actually lasting for a decade now has dimmed the locals’ confidence. Pham Dinh Nghinh, an elderly man living in Cat Linh ward since the first days of construction said, “We have been hearing promises of starting operations and test-runs for years. But every day you look at the project, it is still at a standstill. The project has given us nothing but disappointment.”
A ray of hope came from the prime minister at a June 9 meeting, who ordered relevant agencies to work on allowing foreign experts to return to Vietnam. The PM ordered the commercial launch to take place within the year.
“The metro remains derailed because the general Chinese contractor does not have enough experts in the country due to COVID-19. They might arrive in Vietnam later this month to deal with the problem,” a senior official of the Ministry of Transport (MoT) told VIR.
Despite this, the future commercial launch of the metro line remains uncertain as among the 13 safety indexes the project has to satisfy, one can only be evaluated by a French consultant when the trains are actually running. There is no clear timeline for reopening commercial flights between Vietnam and France.
Worse still, the project is facing many other unsolved complications, including the payment mechanism and conclusion of the financial audit. Moreover, the Chinese contractor has asked Vietnam to arrange an additional $50 million to put the project into operation and to pay the rest of the capital before it can receive the metro line.
Over the past decade, the metro line has been under supervision of three municipal Party Committee secretaries and four transport ministers, with the investment almost doubling from $550 million to nearly $900 million, and dozens of deadlines missed. The numbers continue to rise, with no specific operation timeline in place.
Discussions once again heated up when its key problems were analysed at last week’s discussions of the National Assembly’s (NA) ongoing month-long session after 2019 deadlines were not met.
Transport expert Nguyen Huu Duc said, “The project failed in the preparation stage. Can such rocky development process bring about smooth operations? We are very concerned.”
Another transport expert Bui Danh Liem emphasised the responsibility of the agencies and individuals involved in this project. “We should take a closer look at commitments in the engineering, procurement and construction and other contracts to allocate culpability. No economic contracts are dealt without possible punishments.
So far, about 1,000 staff have been trained to operate the metro. However, 28 per cent have already quit. More painfully, each year, the country has to pay interest of VND650 billion ($28.3 million) for debts owed.
Deputy Minister of Transport Nguyen Ngoc Dong blamed the sluggish progress on the weaknesses of the general contractor and its lack of practical experience. “This is an entirely new kind of project in the country and so there are no comprehensive standards or regulations applicable. We have to apply international standards and take time to make adjustments on the go,” he explained.
According to Hanoi’s People Committee, the city sets up a railway group to take over the project when it is put into operation. It plans to borrow nearly $100 million to operate the line. A joint working group between Hanoi and the MoT has been set up to deal with the problems. It is expected to submit a master scheme soon.
Ngo Tri Long, a senior economist said, “The Cat Linh-Hadong metro line is a costly lesson for us about selecting a partner, official development assistance (ODA), the selection of a contractor, technology, the supervision of implementation, and the settlement of violations. This is a failure in public investment that has consumed a great deal of time and money.”
Under the approved planning by 2030, with a vision towards 2050, the capital will develop eight metro lines with total length of 318km. In light of these designs, it is essential that the expensive lesson is learnt thoroughly.
It remains unclear what will happen if the two sides do not reach an agreement on the $50 million or when the metro can begin operations, despite direction to the MoT to work with relevant state management agencies to put the line in operation this year.
Many other countries are having similar issues with Chinese contractors. For instance, the Indonesian government has begun discussions on the possibility of Japanese participation in the high-speed Jakarta-Bandung railway, hoping to spur progress on the delayed Chinese-led project as costs mount.
The new proposal would combine the rail link – which Japan lost out on in 2015 – with a Japanese-Indonesian project upgrading the existing 750km connection between Jakarta and Surabaya.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia is also deep in debts because of a big loan from Export-Import Bank of China to build the Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit project. Despite the said fast development and low investment cost, the urban railway project is not operating efficiently.