VN’s inland waterways need more investment

VietNamNet Bridge – Within three weeks, from March 6 to 20, Viet Nam witnessed three waterway accidents. Of those incidents affecting An Thai Bridge in Hai Duong Province, Con Do Bridge in Ha Tinh Province, and Ghenh Bridge in Dong Nai Province, the latest and most serious is the collapse of the 113-year-old Ghenh Bridge - the key link on the north-south rail route. Of note, all of the accidents were reportedly caused by neglect and the poor professional qualification of sailors. The cases give rise to numerous questions, including whether the management of waterway traffic workers and vehicles, as well as penalties related to waterway traffic violations, are adequate. For insight into the problems, Viet Nam News reporters Khanh Chi and Tien Hieu spoke to officials.

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Tran Van Tho

It is clearly seen that helmsmen are the first people to be blamed for the accidents mentioned above. Is this the result of loose management of helmsman’s training and waterway traffic?

Pham Minh Nghia, chairman of Viet Nam Inland Waterway Transportation Association:

Generally speaking, the number of traffic accidents caused by drivers is relatively high. In the waterway sector, accidents caused by helmsmen account for between 40-50 per cent. Why?

First, vessels with a capacity of 200 tonnes were considered extremely large some 20 years ago, but now large vessels usually have a capacity from 700 to thousands of tonnes. In the past, there were two vocational schools, but now there are 38 private training establishments. Training activities have increased in quantity, but still fail in meeting the development of fleets.

For example, in Phu Tho Province where many households have ships, between 700-800 tonne ships, being built for the transport of sand, oil or containers. A husband may own a first-rate certificate and his wife might own a chief mechanics certificate, but their children, who grow up learning about the business, will one day manage to drive the ships without any professional training, not to mention a licence. Also, these households often hire labourers who receive low payments.

Obviously, there is a certain shortage of qualified human resources for boats. The current contingent either have no certificates at all, or have inadequate certificates.

Second, when attending a training course for a driving licence, just a few students consider safety to be as top priority. Most just wish to earn a certificate and a licence.

Above all, what matters most are drivers not complying with legal regulations. I once travelled on a passenger ship from Rach Gia City [Kien Giang Province] to Can Tho City. The port authority came to check the ship when it was about to leave. It was allowed to leave as it had a captain, chief mechanic and crew members. When it travelled for two or three kilometres, the ship received more passengers, whilst the captain went offshore and let another man drive it. So, it happened.

The three accidents involving An Thai, Con Do and Ghenh bridges were all due to the poor abilities of helmsmen. In the first case, the captain of the ship which hit the bridge had a driving licence, but the man who was driving did not. He even did not notice that he had travelled into the wrong route and that the clearance height was low. In the case of Ghenh Bridge, the barge owner has a driving licence, but he let two other men who have no certificates drive it. Here, I did not want to stress that the barge owner is over 60 years old and, according to the law, he is not allowed to continue in the business. Clearly enough, such poor legal awareness has led to fatal accidents on not only the waterways, but also on road and rail routes.   

Could you elaborate about the difficulties in the management of waterway traffic?

Tran Van Tho, deputy head of the Ministry of Transport’s Viet Nam Inland Waterways Administration (VIWA):

More than 200,000 certificates and driving licences have been handed out to ship drivers nationwide. Managing helmsmen with driving licences is very difficult and dispersed now because some helmsmen with licences do not operate in the domestic waterway sector.

In the accident on An Thai Bridge, the ship’s driver was warned of the navigational clearance height, however, his lack of awareness and professional abilities led to the unfortunate accident.

Those who do not follow waterway traffic regulations will lose their driving licences. In the past, waterway ports and waterway traffic inspectors withdrew a lot of certificates and driving licences held by violators.

Nghia: Years after the National Reunification [1975], inland waterway transport carried about 48-49 per cent of the total freight transported nationwide. According to an account by Japanese specialists, inland waterway vehicles transported 235 million tonnes of cargo in 2010, account for over 30 per cent of the total freight transport nationally. In the meanwhile, statistics by Viet Nam indicated that cargo reached around 85 million tonnes in 2010 and 186 million tonnes in 2014.

In my opinion, the inadequate account by Vietnamese authorities led to the discounting of the role and position of the inland waterway transport sector. As a result, the sector has been provided with insufficient investment.

Years before 2005, annual investment in the waterway traffic sector accounted for over 1 per cent of the total investment in the traffic sector. Over the past five years, it stood around 3 per cent, but fell to 1 per cent again this year. I think investment for inland waterway traffic should increase to five, seven or ten per cent, which is still too low.

As I said, the number of training facilities has increased, so has training materials. However, driving tests have not been paid due attention to, as in road traffic vehicles. The testing system is still the same as tens of years ago. A proper testing system needs additional investment in devices, machines, and infrastructure.

The management of waterway traffic vehicles is not as easy and convenient, as it is with road vehicles [due to geographical conditions]. It is obvious that port authorities and traffic police related to Ghenh Bridge, for instance, did not complete their tasks.

What measures, in terms of management and infrastructure, can be taken to ensure waterway traffic safety?

Tho: VIWA has been setting up surveillance cameras at helmsmen training and examination centres to control students and ensure driving licences are issued in a proper manner.

Authorised agencies must be blamed for allowing ships with out-of-date registration to operate. Port authorities are in charge of checking ship registration and helmsmen driving licences before allowing ships to depart. In the coming time, VIWA will inspect which agencies violated regulations to improve their records of accomplishing their tasks.

VIWA will also ask management units to step up supervision of training and granting driving licences for helmsmen, upgrade infrastructure to meet transportation demands and review systems of waterway traffic signs.

VIWA will cooperate with local authorities and waterway police departments to promote supervision and punishment of violations on domestic waterway routes, besides urging transport firms to uphold their responsibilities for managing vehicles, drivers and domestic ports.

Repairing and upgrading bridge-crossings require huge capital resources and time to complete. Transport deputy minister Nguyen Hong Truong ordered the department to manage boats and ships round the clock at bridges that are vulnerable to damage and collapse when being hit, and add remote signaling systems.

For long-term solutions, the department will apply science and information technology in directing and managing waterway vehicles, including installing surveillance devices.

Nghia: The first and foremost task is to check and count the number of bridges nation-wide, especially weak and dilapidated ones, to determine management responsibility in each sector in order to have proper plans for repair, upgrading or relocating bridges.

Second, the sector should quickly add proper signals along waterway traffic routes, as Deputy Minister of Transport Nguyen Hong Truong recently asked for signals to be installed on major rivers, such as Tien, Hau, Dong Nai, Sai Gon, and big estuaries in the north. In parallel, it is necessary to expand the clearance height of bridges.

Third, a management standard system should be completed soon. Previously, management cared only for technical standards, but now it must include safety standards.

Last, but not least, legal punishment must be stronger and deterrents are put in place. In meetings, I often heard people working in the inland traffic sector complain that they cannot bear high levels of penalties, as they earn low incomes. As far as I’m concerned, penalties must be strong enough to force traffic workers to abide by regulations.

VNS

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