The International Steam Pages

The Only Railway (Ever) in Laos

Hans Hufnagel posted some pictures on this site back in 2003. Now Thomas Kautzor muses on some unsolved mysteries surrounding the railway on the islands of Don Khone and Don Det.

It would appear that the railway had three phases 1000mm (1893-96) – 1000mm (1897-c1940) – narrow gauge (1945).

Given the large number of visitors these islands see, one would have thought that one of them would have measured the gauge of the OK, but it seems not.

Prior to being plinthed, the wheel-less Decauville was reported on its side in the bush at the southern tip of the railway on Don Khone (not Don Det). Why it is missing its wheels is a mystery, maybe it was in the process of being regauged when it was abandoned.

There are many versions of the railway’s history, most with differing versions regarding the gauges:

In “Les Chemins de Fer de la France d’Outre-Mer – Vol. 1 L’Indochine – Le Yunnan”, the railway is covered in two pages and lacks precise details. It has the 7 km railway between the two islands as built in 1892, relaid in 1896 and closed between 1939 and 1950. It doesn’t mention the fact that the extension to Don Det was only completed between 1910 and 192x, after the viaduct was built. It has the railway as metre gauge throughout its existence and lists two small tender locos as motive power, one of which was named “Paul Doumer” and weighing 7 tons. It then goes on to speculate that Pinguely 0-6-0T 138/1902, new to Etablissements Brisset, Saigon, was probably destined for the line in the absence of any other alternative owners in French Indochina. It also claims that in 1928 one of the Saigon-Mytho railway locos (4-4-0T 22-101 – 105, SACM Belfort 4661-3/1896 & 4696-7/1897) was transferred to Laos.

The Wikipedia page wasn’t as detailed the last time I looked at it. It has the railway as “initially laid to Decauville-standard 600 mm” and later “partly or wholly converted to (possibly) metre gauge”. It has the presumably metre gauge OK loco named “Eloïse” as built in 1911 and, according to one source, having arrived on the island in 1929. The entry says that “it is not clear what gauge the steam locomotive ‘Eloïse’ stands on” and that this could eventually be resolved by measuring the distance between the wheels. The author assumes the gauge to be metre, on the basis that it was the gauge most widely in use in French Indochina, but acknowledges that it did not have to be as there were never any plans to connect the line to any other network. Wikipedia does not mention that the line was meter gauge at beginning (as indicated on the information boards on site), when it was used to transfer riverboats hauled by Vietnamese coolies. However, two photos on (link broken by 29th October 2017) appear to confirm that (the three French loco drawings on that page come from the Decauville catalogue).

On (link broken 5th April 2019) the French author has the railway as a possibly 600mm gauge poorly-laid line from 1893 to 1896 (although the 1st photo shows part of a riverboat on metre gauge track) and relaid to metre gauge in 1896. In 1997 he interviewed Mr. Van Dhi, born in 1910, who worked for the navigation company from 1934 on and who claimed that the OK, a metre gauge 0-6-0T (which it clearly isn’t), arrived in 1929 (probably the source mentioned on Wikipedia) to replace the “Paul Doumer” which was not powerful enough for the needs of the railway (it had difficulty getting trains up the ramps to the viaduct). He also mentioned that the railway was still used by the Japanese during WWII and closed in 1949 after a road was opened on the eastern shore of the Mekong River.

B.R. Whyte in “The Railway Atlas of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia” (pp. 143-150) probably has the most comprehensive and detailed account on the railway’s history. The chapter is well-researched and Whyte cites many sources. According to Whyte :

09/1893 temporary track laid across on Don Khone (1000mm, 3 km);

10/1893 track relaid further downstream (1000mm, 5 km) due to fallen river level;

15-31/10/1893 two steam gunboats transshipped over railway (coolie manpower);

05/09/1894 one steam gunboat transshipped over railway;

09-10/1896 three commercial steamboats transshipped over railway;

15/07/1896 Compagnie des Messageries Fluviales de la Cochichine (CMFC, renamed Cie. Saigonnaise de Navigation sometime before 1943) receives the concession to operate the railway;

1897 permanent line replaces temporary one (1000mm, 5 km);

By 1909 locomotive replaces coolies;

c.1920 bridge and line to Don Det completed (2 km);

09/05/1941 islands and railway ceded from France to Thailand, tracks already mostly removed by CMFC;

26/04/1945 Japanese arrive on Don Khone to inspect railway;

03/05/1945 Japanese embassy requests Thai permission to restore line;

16/05/1945 Japanese supply ship arrives at Don Khone;

30/05/1945 Japanese ship arrives at Don Khone with rails and sleepers;

04/06/1945 Thai Prime Minister approves, with conditions, Japanese request;

06/06/1945 2nd Japanese ship arrives at Don Khone with rails and sleepers;

14/06/1945 Japanese ambassador accepts conditions imposed by Thais;

13/08/1945 Japanese had rebuilt 4 km of track;

15/08/1945 Japanese surrender, WWII end;

17/11/1946 islands retroceded to France, but railway probably never resurrected.

Whyte has the railway as metre gauge from the beginning until 1941, which is confirmed by visitors accounts from 1895 (2) and 1927. The first transshipment in 1893 took 15 days because there were only 200 metres of rail available, with rail from the back having to be relaid at the front as the boats progressed. The transfer in 1894 only took three hours, as by then more rails had been obtained. In 1895 rolling stock only comprised two flat wagons. By 1909, a steam locomotive had arrived. In 1927 the stock consisted of a 32 or 33 year-old “Decauville” steam loco, an covered flat wagon with a garden bench and one or two flat wagons.

During the French period until 1941 the railway served the purpose of connecting Luang Prabang, Vientane and Pakse with Phnom Penh and Saigon, all along the Mekong. However, the Thais did not need the railway in any way as they could more easily access the places in Laos from their railheads (at the time) at Ubon Rathchathani and Udon Thani.

According to Whyte, the railway was then partly rebuilt by the Japanese in 1945 to a gauge of 750 mm. Given that the French are said to have removed the most of the track in 1940/41, but with the rebuilt track abandoned in 1945, this would explain the presence of the numerous narrow gauge track panels used as fences all over the islands. After the war the railway was not needed anymore after a road was opened along the eastern shore of the Mekong.

Finally, on (pictures from 2010), the gauge is given as 750mm. The OK is given as a 40 PS loco and the wheel-less Decauville, said to have been brought there by the Japanese, as a 20 HP ‘Progres’ type built between 1912 and c.1930.

Just to complicate matters a bit more (and in case the OK is 750mm instead of 1000mm), the OK works lists shows 750mm gauge 0-4-0Ts 11996/29, 11997/29 and 12243/30 new to Compagnie de Commerce et de Navigation d’Orient, Indochina.

Rob Dickinson