Trainspotting

Yes, I’m a foamer.

A… foamer? You might ask.

“Foamer” is a bit of railroad slang for railroad fan, aka train spotter, aka nerd. Just imagine it from the railroad employee’s point of view. It’s another long day at a job (though not necessarily the work) you may hate, employing equipment that is so old or ill-maintained that you have to fight it to use it when, dogging your every step with a camera (including maybe a few rules-violating short cuts) is a starry-eyed nut. You might be flattered but you might just as easily be pissed-off, especially if said foamer engages in unsafe behavior. They often do.

The web has been kind to both parties, allowing for virtual “rail fanning” at places and circumstances you’re never likely to be able to access otherwise: for example, the locomotive cab of a intercity passenger train in Vietnam.

The above example is not the only Vietnam locomotive cab ride video available on the web, but it was my first encounter with the subject. Here’s my take-away from the two hours and change journey:

  • This locomotive engineer does love the horn and is not entirely disciplined in using it. Apparently the locomotive is not equipped with a bell, as there are many circumstances when here in the States an engineer would be using the bell instead of the horn. On the other hand, other sources tell me that the railroads in Vietnam have a real problem with vehicle and pedestrian collisions, and in fact there are probably more pedestrian grade crossings than there are vehicle grade crossings on this route. Maybe I’d be leaning on the horn too.
  • Here in the States you’ll find instances of “street running,” places where the tracks run down the middle of a street. These are usually branch lines or industrial spurs, but you can find a few mainline examples also, such as the South Shore railroad in Michigan City, Indiana. In this video, in both Hanoi and in Hai Phong, you’ll find what I can only describe as alley-running. (Much of the Chicago Transit Authority’s routes were built along alleys but above the alley not in them.) This particular video was recorded in 2017, and it appears to me that the railroad has had some success in gaining control of its right-of-way. It also appears to me that this was not always the case.
  • Most of the Vietnamese rail network is meter gauge, narrower than “standard” gauge, but you will see one example of dual-gauge trackage at a station that also serves a branch that connects with the Chinese rail network. The Vietnamese network also appears to use knuckle couplers rather than the European couplers for its rolling stock, and while most of that rolling stock appears European in its design sensibilities, these are large pieces of equipment. (I’m not sure how many folks realize just how big freight cars and passenger cars have become in the States in the past half century.) Other sources tell me that the Vietnamese right-of-way is not particularly well-maintained, but the Hanoi – Hai Phong route must then be an exception. It was smooth running, signal equipped (possibly some Centralized Traffic Control in the Hanoi region?), often brisk in speed and (apparently) radio equipped.
  • Despite the above modernity, the railroad is very labor intensive. There are crossing guards at most major road crossings and sometimes not just crossing gates but crossing fences. Judging by the crowds and traffic, the fences may very well be necessary. There are switchmen stationed at most station sidings and station agents at every station; they all meet the train, regardless of whether it is to stop or not. I get the impression that this will be changing, but like many state-owned enterprises, employment is perhaps as much a priority as profit.
  • The railroad is struggling for freight business. There were very few industrial spurs. New greenfield industrial plants had no sidings. A few older plants had sidings but no active connection with the mainline. There may have been one siding that was serving as a “team track”. This passenger run met only one freight train of a dozen cars or so, parked on a siding and awaiting a crew. There was also a switch engine in the Hai Phong terminus yard shunting freight cars. Many station sidings had surplus freight equipment stored. (You can find that here in the States also, though we tend to use entire branch lines.) Other sources confirm that the railroad has a very small percentage of the freight traffic in Vietnam, though much of the freight in Vietnam is likely short haul or barge or ship: tough to compete with.
  • Finally, Vietnam is a odd juxtaposition of the familiar and the alien. There is just so much to look at. If the engineer’s enthusiasm for the horn becomes irritating (and it will), turn the sound down or off. You won’t regret the journey.
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