Dalat’s Crémaillère Railway
A crémaillère railway is designed for steep mountains. Better known as a 'rack and pinion' mechanism, the traction is provided by a cogwheel on the locomotive engaging cogs on a centre rail.
The original railway was built by Swedish engineering sub-contractors with experience of building zigzag railways for use on steep slopes. Track-laying began in 1903, but the unwelcoming terrain made the work very difficult and necessitated boring many tunnels through hard rock. It took a full 30 years to complete the 105km route.The task was carried out in three stages and was finally completed in 1933. The last stage across Lam Vien Plateau, 1,500m above sea level, involved an almost continuous ascent of very steep slopes. The solution was a zigzag section to prevent trains from sliding downwards, and also gave the journey much of its charm.The finished railway linked to Saigon and Nha Trang stations. With three arrivals and departures everyday, Dalat suddenly became a very accessible and popular spot, known to the French as ‘the summer capital’ of Indochina. The city expanded and attracted wealthy diplomats and senior officials who built grand villas overlooking the town.After the eventual expulsion of the colonists, Dalat continued to prosper as the French were replaced by the new Saigon regime in the south. However, as resistance increased, the railway line became a strategic target leading to its closure in 1964 after a series of attacks. Later, the track was destroyed by the Viet Cong to prevent its use by the enemy. Dalat station is a delight. Built by the French in the nineteen-thirties in art deco style, it’s redolent of a provincial railway terminus in France. The rail yard is gently surrendering to the undergrowth and is now used mainly for grazing cattle, but the bright red geraniums in front stand out against the soft yellow building.
Alongside Platform 1 sits number 131-428, an ex-Japanese steam locomotive. The last steam train to run commercially in Vietnam, it’s still operational but only fired up occasionally to dry out corrosive condensation. These days, the two small carriages are pulled by either a D6H Locomotive/railmotor or a D4H locomotive, both diesel driven and decidedly unglamorous.
As the route and the tunnels presumably still exist, restoration of the railway is a possibility. Although it would be an expensive investment, especially as both the track and locomotives would need to be recreated, such a venture would almost certainly become one of Vietnam’s major tourist attractions.