How Vietnam’s Railways Looked in 1927


The 4-6-0 “Ten wheel” locomotive, which could haul trains of 300 tonnes at up to 40kph, or trains of 370 tonnes at 20-25kph

As Vietnam Railways draws up plans for a major upgrade of its network, let’s see how that network looked 88 years ago, as described in the February 1927 article “Quelques données techniques sur les chemins de fer de l’Indochine” (Some technical data on the railways of Indochina), published in the Bulletin de l’Agence générale des colonies.

The railway network in Indochina is equipped with 1m gauge track; the width of the track bed is 4.4m, a measurement which was set in anticipation of rolling stock with a body width of 2.8m.


Floods on the Lạng Sơn line in August 1904

The minimum curve radius is 100m and the maximum gradient is generally 15mm/m, except on some portions of the Saigon-Mytho line, and on the cog rail sections of the line from Krongpha to Dalat. Substantial portions of the line from Lao-Kay to Yunnan-fu have gradients which reach 25mm/m.

In general, small structures such as culvert bridges with openings of less than 6m are built using ordinary masonry. Major bridges have metal decks, because they usually provide passage not only for railway trains, but also for road traffic.

On the lines currently under construction, reinforced concrete is widely used, facilitating bridge spans of up to 15m on the Vinh to Dong-Ha section. The maximum bridge span will be increased to 25m on the new Tan-Ap-Thakhek line and other railways currently under development.

a) Track

The rails are laid on ballast made of crushed stones, 0.50m thick with a 2.40m base width. They are of the flat-bottomed “Vignoles” type, made from steel of 20, 25 or 27kg/m, according to the line. They are laid in sections of 8-12m.

7 Di An Station

Dĩ An Station in the colonial era

The weight of the rails will be increased to 30kg/m on those parts of the Transindochinois [North-South line] which remain to built, and this heavier rail will gradually replace the existing rails on other sections which have already been completed.

Fishplates are of a standard type, ranging from 5.5-6kg in weight. They are used to connect two sections of rail by means of four bolts positioned laterally.

Metal sleepers are employed throughout the Yunnan network and on most of the other lines. They have been very successful, although it is still impossible to indicate what their duration may be. Two types of metal sleeper have been used:

(i) Ménélik sleepers, made from soft steel, straight with curved ends: the rails are secured using steel crapauds, sleeper clips, nuts and bolts.

(ii) Micheville sleepers, also made from soft steel: housings to accommodate the rails are welded to their upper surface.

The weight of a sleeper, including accessories, is 40kg, and 1,250 of them may be laid per km of track.

10 Gianh River Quảng Bình Province 1920s

A train runs along the Gianh River in Quảng Bình Province in the 1920s

In forest areas, wooden sleepers were preferred to metal sleepers because of the lower cost of purchase at the time the lines were constructed. They are made from dense and hard woods (cay nghien, cay sao) and are generally 1.80m long, 0.18m wide and 0.12m high.

However, the increasing difficulty of supplying wooden sleepers and the obvious superiority of metal sleepers have led to a gradual decrease in the use of wooden ones.

(b) Buildings

Most stations and halts are small, comprising only one building with facilities for both passengers and freight. Larger, more important stations have a variety of buildings and outbuildings of different types, including the lodgings of European or indigenous staff.

Workshops and depots are distributed throughout different parts of each network according to need. No construction workshop in the proper sense exists in Indochina. Rolling stock parts usually arrive ready-manufactured from Europe, leaving just the assembly, carpentry and interior work to be carried out in the colony.

Gia Lâm - Chaudronnerie, montage d'une chaudière à l'aide du pont roulant ETHBIB Bildarchiv

Gia Lâm Works in the colonial era (ETHBIB Bildarchiv)

Some small guard huts have been built at level crossings, especially in built-up areas and at entrances to combined road and railway bridges and passing loops.

(c) Fixed equipment

The supply of water has not, in most cases, caused any difficulty. Facilities for the supply of water by gravity are limited and water pumps are used almost everywhere. Tanks, pipes and water cranes are of the current type.

It is the same with swing bridges and weighbridges. However, signalling apparatus is still rather limited: a general modification of signalling, necessitated by the steady increase in traffic, is currently being studied.

(d) Rolling stock

The most commonly-used type of locomotive has three pairs of coupled driving wheels, an adhesion weight of 30 tonnes and can haul trains of 300 tonnes at up to 40kph, or trains of 370 tonnes at 20-25kph.

More powerful locomotives (four pairs of coupled driving wheels with 40 tonnes adhesion weight) are used on the long 25mm/m gradients of the Yunnan railway. The section of the Langbian railway currently under construction will make use of special mixed adhesion and cog rail locomotives.


One of the second-generation superheated 4-6-0 “Ten wheel” locomotives delivered in the 1920s

Coal firing is used exclusively in Tonkin and in Yunnan, where this fuel is abundant.

In contrast, the Southern and Annam-Central networks burn wood, which is more economical for them.

On all of the various networks, travellers are divided into four classes.

For the first three classes, the carriages in service are usually mixed, with two 1st-class compartments, two 2nd-class compartments and four 3rd-class compartments. The carriages have gangways between the compartments. There are also cars comprising only 3rd-class compartments.

The 4th class is used almost exclusively by indigenous people. The carriages in this class have benches along the side walls, while the central area is kept free for transporting the passengers’ luggage, which is not allowed in the freight vans.

All passenger carriages have two bogies and a weight of around 16 tonnes.

Freight rolling stock includes covered wagons, gondola wagons and flat wagons; this rolling stock is of the current type for 1m gauge railways.

Chemin de fer de l'Indochine. Intérieur d'un wagon de 4ème classe 1921-35

The interior of a 4th-class railway carriage in the 1920s

Covered wagons of 5 tonnes, 10 tonnes and 20 tonnes are currently in use.

The vehicles currently in service on the networks of the colony have simple vacuum brakes, which do not give sufficient security in the event of one of the hoses connecting the vehicles becoming displaced or broken. As these vehicles are used on some sections of track where the gradient is severe, prudence requires the adoption of automatic vacuum brakes. The current brakes must therefore be replaced with automatic brakes.

Signalling is almost non-existent at the moment. However, the increase in the circulation of trains necessitates the installation of protection discs some 500 to 800m before the points of restriction, at least on those parts of line where traffic is highest.

The installation of these disc signals would be most useful on the lines between Phu-Lang-Thuong and Vinh on the Northern network and between Saigon and Muong-Man on the Southern network. On other sections of line, their installation can be temporarily deferred.

The more intense traffic and the use of heavier trains also demands the reinforcement of existing rails. Renewals will be made annually, according to resources, with rails of the 30kg/m type being used for those sections of Transindochinois which remain to be built.

22 Bac Le Station new

Freight being loaded at Bắc Lệ Station

Metal sleepers will also be substituted for the wooden ones which are still in use on major routes in the Northern and Southern networks as soon as the latter need replacing.

Finally, various complementary works, such as creating or lengthening loop lines and sidings and improving water supplies, will be carried out at various stations.

You may also be interested in these articles on the railways and tramways of Việt Nam, Cambodia and Laos:

A Relic of the Steam Railway Age in Da Nang
By Tram to Hoi An
Date with the Wrecking Ball – Vietnam Railways Building
Derailing Saigon’s 1966 Monorail Dream
Dong Nai Forestry Tramway
Full Steam Ahead on Cambodia’s Toll Royal Railway
Goodbye to Steam at Thai Nguyen Steel Works
Ha Noi Tramway Network
Indochina Railways in 1928
“It Seems that One Network is being Stripped to Re-equip Another” – The Controversial CFI Locomotive Exchange of 1935-1936
Phu Ninh Giang-Cam Giang Tramway
Saigon Tramway Network
Saigon’s Rubber Line
The Changing Faces of Sai Gon Railway Station, 1885-1983
The Langbian Cog Railway
The Long Bien Bridge – “A Misshapen but Essential Component of Ha Noi’s Heritage”
The Lost Railway Works of Truong Thi
The Mysterious Khon Island Portage Railway
The Railway which Became an Aerial Tramway
The Saigon-My Tho Railway Line

Tim Doling is the author of The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2012) and also conducts 16-day and 13-day Việt Nam Rail Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group Rail Thing – Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam for more information about Việt Nam’s railway history and all the latest news from Vietnam Railways.

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