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Cambodia's New Railways

posted: 2016-08-26
Phnom Penh's freshly painted Station  (photo courtesy AEC News Today</a>)Phnom Penh's freshly painted Station (photo courtesy AEC News Today)

For a brief period during World War II, it was possible to travel all the way from Bangkok to Phnom Penh by rail. The two railway systems use 1-meter gauge track, as does Malaysian Railways so that, in theory, it was possible to travel all the way from Singapore, up the Malaysian Peninsula, through Thailand and Cambodia, to Phnom Penh

After World War II the direct connection was terminated when the French temporarily retook control of Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge period and the war with Vietnam much damage was inflicted on the railway infrastructure, Maintenance virtually ceased, and eventually, in 2009, rail services were suspended.

Rehabilitation of Cambodia's Railways

On June 12, 2009, the Cambodian Government and a joint venture led by Toll Group (Australia) signed a 30-year concession agreement for the rehabilitation and operation of the Cambodian Railway system, with funding provided by the Asian Development Bank and AusAID. An Australian Company, Toll Royal Railways, received a concession to operate the Cambodian railway system for 30 years and some progress has been made, though in December 2014 the Toll Group announced that they were pulling out of the project. The company was renamed the Royal Railway.

Southern Route from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville

From December 28, 2012, the Southern line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville was opened for freight transport (three trains per week). As of May 06, 2016, the Royal Railway website reports much expanded services including: On 6th of May of this year (2016) passenger services (Friday to Sunday) resumed on the same route, one train per day in each direction. Travel time is around 7 hours. Air-conditioned services only run on Saturdays.

Western Route to the Thailand Border

The Western Line to Thailand was due to open in 2013 but has been delayed. An article on the Asian Development Bank website in 2013 reports that:

"Of the total length of 335 km between Phnom Penh to Sisophon, about 23 km is completed; and - of the 48 km of missing link between Sisophon to Poipet (Thai border), about 42 km is completed."

A Danish friend who works in Battambang, a major town on the route of the railway about 100 km from the border, knows very little about the project and has certainly not seen much activity locally.

I visited Battambang station during August of this year and found it almost derelict. It was possible to distinguish three distinct railway tracks passing through the station but they were quite overgrown.

Battambang Station, looking across the tracksBattambang Station, looking across the tracks

However, on the next day on the way to Poi Pet, I observed much evidence of railway construction from around 40 km from the Thai border to Poi Pet itself: embankments had been re-built with new concrete culverts to channel small water courses, old metal sleepers had been replaced with concrete ones, bridges had been rebuilt or refurbished.

New Embankments and CulvertsNew Embankments and Culverts

In Poi Pet itself, a stretch of track is under construction between the two border posts right in front of Grand Diamond Casino, but I do not believe services will recommence this year.

The Railroad runs through the middle .....The Railroad runs through the middle .....

Other proposals

New lines have been proposed between Phnom Penh and Poipet via Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and from Phnom Phen to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. but no schedule announced. It appears also that the Chinese wish to include Cambodia in their Asian railway plans.

Bamboo Railway

Currently (August 2016) the only railway between Phnom Penh and the Thai border is the Bamboo Railway.

Because of the state of disrepair of the single meter-gauge track and lack of locomotives and rolling stock, local people, especially around the towns of Battambang, about 120km from the Thai border, and Pursat, about 100 km further towards Phnom Penh, devised a form of transport which could use the remaining track, yet was easily portable over damaged sections and could be removed to make way for heavier vehicles coming the other way. It was especially popular in Western Cambodia for carrying goods to and from the Thai border.

It is basically a bamboo platform sitting on two axles, belt-drven by a portable power plant such as are used to power agricultural vehicles and pumps in Cambodia, rural Thailand and Southern China. As you can see below the two axles are easily removable and the platform only needs two persons to take it off the rails. As of now it is the only railway I have used in Cambodia,

The Bamboo Railway, now mainly for touristsThe Bamboo Railway, now mainly for tourists

Demountable Bogie on the Bamboo RailwayDemountable Bogie

Power Plant for the Bamboo RailwayPower Plant

Lots of room for tourists here on the Bamboo RailwayLots of room for tourists here

On a recent visit to the Bamboo Railway, a few kilometers outside Battambang, it was clear that the service is now mainly for tourists. I observed that the track and bridges are in poor condition, metal sleepers are from the French colonial era, bridges are really scary, and surrounding vegetation (jungle) intrusive. The biggest problem for foreigners with an aging back is that the tracks do not connect very comfortably in any dimension so that each time the un-sprung vehicle goes over a join, a severe jolt passes through the bamboo platform and the bones of the aching foreigner.

Curvy track and scary bridge on the Bamboo RailwayCurvy track and scary bridge

The journey is booked as 20 minutes out, 20 minutes back, and, in between, 20 minutes carousing with the locals in a "native village". We never got there: after 10 minutes of severe shaking, my Ozzie friend and I decided that enough was enough so we chose the opportunity of meeting a truck coming in the opposite direction, to suggest that our vehicle might be turned around and returned to base.

I do admit that on the way back we did pick up a local for a few hundred meters, carrying fodder for his cattle so the original purpose has not been forgotten. For us, it was scary but fun.

If you want to visit this strange but, in it's own way, brilliant railway, you probably need to do so within the next year or so as Royal Railways are hoping to re-commence official services within that period. Any taxi will take you from Battambang riverside to the "Bamboo Railway Station" for around $3.

Aranyaphrathet and Poipet

Aranyaphrathet lies just over the border with Thailand at the end of the Thai Eastern Railway. The railway station lies between the town and the border, about 6 kilometers from the border. The railway tracks go almost to the border (through someone's house as I noticed a few years ago).

Google Earth marks the site of the Poipet station at around 800m from the border, opposite the casinos, though other sources suggest it is nearer the immigration offices - I have not seen it. The main memory of Poipet is the splendor of the casinos contrasted with the poverty of the train of carts going to the border, many hand-cycles driven by amputees. Perhaps some of the border trade got there by Bamboo Railway.

Border Trade at Poi PetBorder Trade

I hope that one day, in the not too distant future, I shall be able to do that great railway journey from Singapore to Phnom Penh in its entirety, and later, maybe go on from Phnom Penh to Vietnam, China and beyond.

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