I have been told there’s been little construction action on the Hanoi elevated train for months — I am new to Hanoi and, therefore, to the Skytrain project — but with the Hanoi Metropolitan Railway Management Board signing a deal in January worth VND7,667 billion (US$334.5 million) with French contractors, it seems that this is all about to change. With this injection of funds, the estimated completion date of the Nhon-Hanoi section is now estimated to be 2021.
Line 3, also known as the pilot line, began construction in 2011 and was slated to be completed in 2015; but it has been plagued with delays, setbacks, funding issues and safety concerns. This new deal, financed with loans from the French Government, will be used to fund everything from design and installation of the railway system to signals and communications management to facilities at the depots.
The line starts at Nhon and reaches Cau Giay via National Highway 32, Ho Tung Mau and Xuan Thuy, and passes through Kim Ma, Nui Truc and Quoc Tu Giam. Hanoi Railway Station at the T-junction of Le Duan and Tran Hung Dao will be the final stop.
The spectre of the Metro construction hangs over Hanoi much like the pollution and traffic jams it hopes to reduce. Its various stages of construction are unmissable. Huge concrete pillars support the elevated track, and, where there are tracks — and depending on the stage of the build — some landscaping and beautification has been undertaken. Artists’ impressions paint a modern picture, all sleek glass and chrome and abstract art marrying nicely with the concrete, and dovetailing with the immediate environment.
Along Lang Street, which forms part of the Cat Linh to Ha Dong line, another station is almost complete. Mr Hiep, the site manager, has been with the project for three years and has worked on three of the stations along this section of the line. He says that once construction is finished in the middle of March, the station infrastructure — rails, electricity, signage — will be assembled. He anticipates that the trial run of the line will begin in October, with this section being commercially operational after six months.
Around the station, it’s business as usual despite the construction. Fruit sellers, with large baskets of tiny green apples balanced on the back of their bicycles, wait patiently alongside the road for buyers. A tea seller uses a concrete pillar as a backdrop to his business; ubiquitous and brightly coloured plastic seats circle his stand. Vendors continue to ply their wares, claiming that there was little impact on their businesses on the one hand, but they had noticed the effects of the station build on the other.
Ms Thuy, who sells fruit in the area around Lang Street, says that people are inclined to buy more from her when they are stuck in traffic, which is now more free-flowing because the station is almost finished. Traffic jams are better for her business.
She is looking forward to the station being finished, though, and providing the area underneath isn’t blocked off, thinks it will be a sweet spot to sell her fruit because of the foot traffic and protection from the elements. Mr Dai, who has been selling tea near the construction site for 12 months, says that while his customers from the construction site have increased, like Ms Thuy he has fewer sales from motorists because the traffic is now free-flowing. But he says that it is unlikely he will use the Metro because his business is mobile; he uses his motorcycle to carry all his equipment to the site where he sells his tea.
And that is the million-dollar question; will Hanoians use the Metro? Will they trade the convenience of their motorcycles for public transport? Mr Hiep says that there will be parking for around 400 motorcycles at each station as part of the build to encourage patronage. Of course, this largely depends on where commuters are travelling from, and the purpose.
Mr Nam, who operates a business near Lang Street Station, says that he will use the Metro. He lives in nearby Ha Dong and thinks it will be safer and more convenient to travel to his business by train rather than use his motorcycle. Ms Huong, a student at Hanoi University, says her use of the Metro will depend on how quickly she can get from the university to her part-time job in the Lang Street area. She uses the bus and currently her journey is around 10 minutes.
Xe om driver Ms Ha, who parks her motorcycle on the footpath, is philosophical about the Metro and the impact on her business, acknowledging that while she may lose customers in the short term, it is better for the city generally. For Hanoians, she says, it is a better way to travel; cooler and nicer — as long as it is safe. The train will be better for her, she says, as traffic jams are bad for business.
It’s not just motorcycles that are a problem for Hanoi’s road system, though. While modern transport infrastructure and urban planning are necessary to combat the rising tide of vehicles on Hanoi’s roads, the number of cars is cause for concern. There are around 5 million motorbikes on Hanoi’s roads and this is increasing, but passenger car ownership across Vietnam is also ballooning at a rate of around 36% per annum, even with prohibitive fees and taxes.
Motor cars, symbolic of affluence and a growing middle class, compete with motorcycles and public buses — and even the good-old-fashioned bicycle — on Hanoi’s roads and streets that were not designed for high car volume. Global trends show it is unlikely that those who can now afford to buy a car will swap their vehicle for public transport. Shifting attitudes is no easy task, even with Hanoi’s legendary traffic jams, gridlocks and pollution.
There must be a greater incentive to travel by public transport than by private motor vehicle or motorcycle, and it’s not always about cheaper transport options or even altruism. Convenience, comfort and safety are major considerations, and factor into whether Hanoians will or won’t patronise the Metro. Given the long-term nature of this project, though, unless pre-emptive commuter education begins now, the Metro may not be the game-changer Hanoi expects.
Time, which the Metro seems to have an excess of, will tell.
Photos by Sasha Arefieva / February 2017