Cambodia has opened the first stretch of its rehabilitated railway line, an essential part of an effort that will not only boost the country’s economy, but will ultimately connect Singapore with Scotland.
Toll Royal Railway's passenger train heads south from Phnom Penh along the 110 kilometres of newly-rehabilitated track
A German-made passenger train moves out of the marshalling yard at Phnom Penh train station this week. You might not think that this in itself is very remarkable, but for Cambodia and the region this marks the beginning of the realisation of a dream: a pan-Asian railway that connects Singapore to China and beyond.
Years of conflict meant Cambodia’s railway was destroyed or heavily damaged, along with much of its infrastructure. But earlier on Friday a group of dignitaries officiated at the opening of the first stretch of rehabilitated railway – a 110-kilometer-long track running south from Phnom Penh to the town of Touk Meas.
"Rehabilitating the train"
David Kerr heads Toll Royal Railway, the company that won the concession to operate Cambodia’s railways for 30 years. Kerr says the next step is to extend the line a further 140 kilometres to the southern port of Sihanoukville.
"We’re rehabilitating the train on the southern line to handle 1,000-meter trains, so we’ve started up cement services, and the container freight business starts in May next year direct on to the port. Then we’ll progressively start operations on the northern line," he explains.
From Singapore to Scotland
Three men construct a "flying carpet", or norrie, before resuming their trip along the buckled railway line
The northern line is the old track running west from Phnom Penh for almost 400 kilometres to the Thai border. Once that is finished in 2012, the only stretch missing is that between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, a piece of track the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia have agreed will be built.
And at that point, the pan-Asian railway will be completed, and it will – in theory at least – be possible to get on a train in Singapore and get off in Scotland. The rehabilitation effort is costing around $140 million dollars, and most of that money is coming from the Asian Development Bank, or ADB.
Toll Royal Railway says there is clear potential to capture a large share of the country’s freight market, most of which currently goes by road. Toll will also look to value-added services such as warehousing and freight forwarding. At this stage it is unclear whether the company will introduce passenger services.
However David Kerr says the country ought to benefit from taking freight off the roads. "Moving towards a greener Cambodia, having the railways rehabilitated is a significant step forward," he says, "especially bulk freight like bulk rice, bulk sugar, bulk corn, bulk cement is ideally suited for modern railways."
Riding the rails: A norrie driver and a villager head west to Pursat town through the rice fields of central Cambodia
Work on the northern railway is scheduled to start next year, but once it does, a method of travel that has become a way of life in western Cambodia for two decades will disappear with it.
That method of transport is the so-called flying carpet, which is best described as a wooden board slotted on two steel-wheeled axles, and powered by a small engine. This contraption – with no seats and no sides, in other words a health and safety officer’s nightmare – hurtles along the buckled tracks at speeds of up to 35 kilometres an hour.
Dozens of operators run these flying carpets, and locals pay just 50 cents to travel on them. The flying carpet, or norrie, has also become a favourite with more adventurous tourists, but it will not be around for much longer.
Author: Robert Carmichael, Phnom Penh
Editor: Grahame Lucas