Curtis King is not just a musician, he’s a train buff, an obsessive in the guise of Eddie Van Halen, who has used his adopted home of Dalat to further three passions — playing the blues, doing business and thinking about trains. Recently his biggest focus has been the now mainly defunct train line running between Dalat and Thap Cham in Central Vietnam.
Completed in 1932, the train line transported passengers and cargo from the heat of coastal twin cities Thap Cham-Phan Rang to the cool, high-altitude hill station of Dalat. Thanks to its cog railway technology, it was able to traverse the steep mountain passes on its ascent to Dalat, making it unique among Vietnam’s train routes. Built with a central, serrated rail between the tracks that connected to a cogwheel under the steam-powered locomotive, the rail provided traction to allow the train to ascend steep slopes and keep it from sliding too fast when it descended downhill.
Finally closed in 1968 after repeated wartime bombing, now only one section remains — the increasingly touristy route from Dalat to Trai Mat. Most of the rest has been salvaged for scrap, and the stations that have survived the excesses of time and climate are in ruins.
The Final Section
Over the past five years Curtis, always with a rock star bottle of wine in hand, has walked the full distance of the now-defunct line. Earlier this year he found the last tunnel, the one section that had yet to be ‘discovered’.
Like a modern-era Columbus sailing to the Promised Land, he phoned me up excited. First I was invited on the trek to the last tunnel — I am also a bit of a trainspotter. And for me, there’s nothing better than shooting the breeze as you trek through the alpine-covered mountain countryside east of Dalat. I’ve done it twice now, written about the journey, and will certainly do it again.
Yet the timing was bad. I had to decline.
Then he called me in the aftermath. He was having convulsions. For five minutes I sat on our office balcony listening to his story about the trek and, of course, the last tunnel.
At the end of the day it’s just a tunnel, a black hole with light on one end, darkness in the middle and light at the other. But when you’ve made it your mission to trace the full route of the former train line, completing it is a buzz.
Once again I was tied up, unable to leave Saigon, unable to retrace the final route. So instead over the Apr. 30 weekend we sent two photographers, Kyle Phanroy and Francis Xavier, on the trip. Their photos of the surviving tunnels, the Dalat countryside and the ruined station at Da Tho are a testament to the journey started and now completed by Curtis.
So When Do the Tours Start?
The answer is, they don’t. And if Curtis has his way, they never will.
“I prefer to visit the tunnels with small groups,” he explains, “preferably train enthusiasts. Realistically, abandoned train tunnels — fortunately — are not the stuff of mass tourism.”
And there’s also an ulterior motive. Curtis is presently working with the Vietnam Railway Company and investors to redevelop the train line. Together with his wife Thuy, he’s already rented out some of the train villas close to Dalat Station, and converted them into a café and guesthouse. But the big picture goal is to rebuild the line.
Says Curtis: “We have assembled an international team of train, tunnel and bridge experts to advise us on reconstructing the rail line. We recently completed an initial survey of the existing state of the tunnels. Our next step is to prepare a full feasibility study. This is going to take time.”
He’s not alone in trying to bring life back to Vietnam’s railway system. Another investor, New Zealand-born Mike Gebbie, is setting up a steam train journey over the Hai Van Pass from Hue to Danang.
But if you are a train buff and want to see the old line right now, there is an option. Head to V Café (vcafedalatvietnam.com) or to the Train Villas (dalattrainvilla.com) and ask for Thuy or Curtis. If you ask nicely, they might just take you down there themselves.
For more information on the reconstruction of the Dalat-Thap Cham railway line, do a search on Facebook for the ‘Dalat Thap Cham Cog Railway Restoration Project’