The Da Lat–Thap Cham Railway or Da Lat-Phan Rang Railway was an 84km rack railway connecting the city of Da Lat to the main North–South Railway at Tháp Chàm in Ninh Thuận Province. It was established by the French administration of Indochina in 1932 after thirty years of construction in phases, beginning in 1903. The first section, running 41km from Tháp Chàm to Sông Pha, opened in 1919, and the second section, running 43km from Song Pha to Da Lat, opened in 1932. Due to the mountainous terrain, the Sông Pha–Da Lat section used rack rails in three sections, and included five tunnels. The Da Lat–Tháp Chàm railway is occasionally referred to as a Crémaillère railway, referring to the French word for the rack used on its rails.
Abandoned during the Vietnam War, the line was gradually dismantled after the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, its infrastructure being used to repair the heavily damaged North–South Railway line. In the 1990s, a 7km section of the line between Da Lat Railway Station and the nearby village of Trại Mát was restored and returned to active use as a tourist attraction; it remains active as of 2010. Restored railway cars now carry the name “Dalat Plateau Rail Road”, although this name was not used when the entire line was in use. A proposed renewal project, backed by provincial and local governments, aims to restore the entire Đà Lạt–Tháp Chàm railway to handle both passenger and cargo transportation.
A locomotive travels on the Đà Lạt–Tháp Chàm line.
The Da Lat–Thap Cham Railway was an adaptation of plans devised by Paul Doumer during his tenure as Governor-General of French Indochina from 1897 to 1902. Approved by the French administration in 1898, Doumer’s ambitious plans included several railway lines, including the Yunnan–Vietnam Railway connecting the coastal town of Haiphong to the city of Kunming in the Chinese province of Yunnan, and the North–South Railway connecting Hanoi and Saigon. Doumer’s original plans called for several more branch lines to connect different parts of Indochina, including a link from Quy Nhơn to Kon Tumin the Central Highlands, along with branch lines leading from the Chinese province of Guangxi to Savannakhet in Laos, and from Saigon to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. None of these other lines were ever implemented in their entirety, although the Hanoi–Dong Dangline later allowed for rail connections to Guangxi, and the first 17km of the Tan Ap—Thakhek line into Laos were built before construction was abandoned. Doumer’s plans were adapted, however, to provide a railway link connecting Da Lat and Tháp Chàm in Ninh Thuận Province, at a cost of 200 million francs.
The Ngoan Muc Pass, along which the railway travelled.
Swedish engineers, who had experience at building zigzag railways for use on steep slopes, were hired to complete the line. Initial surveys took place in 1898, and construction began on the Tháp Chàm–Sông Pha section in 1908. By 1913, tracks had reached the town of Tân Mỹ, and the first trains began to use this portion of the line. The rest of the Tháp Chàm–Sông Pha section opened in 1919, completing the first phase of construction.
The second phase took comparatively more time to complete, due to the mountainous terrain inland from Sông Pha . Although the following section, from Sông Pha to Eo Gio (Bellevue), was only 10km long on a map, its steep grade (120‰) required the use of a rack and pinion system. The Sông Pha–Eo Gio section was completed in 1928. The next section, from Eo Gio to Đơn Dương (Dran), was relatively flat, and was completed in 1929. From Đơn Dương to Tram Hanh (Arbre Broyé), another length of rack rails was laid, this time with a grade of 115‰ and with a more meandering route than previously; this section was completed in 1930. The remaining distance from Tram Hanh to Da Lat was said to be the most difficult, as it crossed the Lam Vien Plateau, 1500m above sea level. The terrain was again relatively flat from Tram Hanh to Da Tho (Le Bosquet), but required the construction of three railway tunnels; finally, the Da Tho–Trai Mat section, which was the final rack rail section with a grade of 60‰, was laid down; the railway tracks finally reached Da Lat in 1932. The section linking Sông Pha to Da Lat was only 43km long, but rose almost 1400m along a winding route with three rack rail sections and five tunnels. Da Lat Railway Station, one of the first colonial-style buildings to be built in the area, was completed in 1938.
Throughout the Vietnam War, the entire Vietnamese railway network was a target of bombardments and sabotage by both North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese forces. The Da Lat–Tháp Chàm line was no exception; plagued by sabotage and mining by the Viet Cong, the line gradually fell out of use, with regular operations coming to an end in 1968.
After the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, the Communist government of the newly unified Vietnam took control of the former South Vietnamese railway. Heavily damaged by bombing and sabotage by both North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese forces and their allies, the war-torn North–South Railway line was returned to service on 31 December 1976, promoted as a symbol of Vietnamese unity. Many abandoned railway lines—such as the Da Lat-Tháp Chàm line—were dismantled to provide materials for the repair of the main line; unused materials were sold as scrap metal.