Project puts trains back on Cambodia's rails
PHUM KSENG, Cambodia—The railroad is many things to people in Cambodia: playground, garbage dump, open-air toilet, livestock grazing ground, a dry path for traversing swampy terrain.
What it has not been for many years is working transportation for either people or freight. In fact, train service was halted completely last year.
That may change soon. Development specialists have persuaded the government to privatize the system, which officially reopened Friday with one freight line between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas, near the Vietnamese border.
Eventually, they promise, a refurbished railroad will revive Cambodia's economy and drag it out of decades of poverty and chaos. It would be an important missing link in a proposed regional rail system that would stretch from Singapore to Kunming, China.
"It's a powerful symbol of Cambodia's reconstruction and redevelopment," said Lachlan Pontifex, an aid expert with the Australian government, which is helping to fund the $141.6 million effort.
While an efficient transport network holds out great promise for Cambodian businesses, the reclaiming of railroad land could sink thousands into deeper poverty. Many people who live and sell goods alongside the rails -- often barely subsisting -- fear they will be evicted from their homes. Others, like the operators of makeshift carts that ferry people along the tracks, known as "bamboo trains," will lose a meager but reliable livelihood.
Cambodian and foreign backers said they are trying to minimize the disruptions, spending millions to compensate those affected.
French colonial rulers laid the first rails across the rice paddies and wetlands in the 1920s. By 1969, track stretched from the Thai border to the capital Phnom Penh and continued southwest to Sihanoukville, on the Gulf of Thailand.
Then Cambodia plunged into chaos, beginning with a U.S.-backed military coup and ending in the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime. After the Khmer Rouge's ouster in 1979, the southern line was still an occasional battleground. Stations crumbled, locomotives rusted and the system ground into dysfunction.
In the past dozen years, the country has seen a sputtering economic boom, which clogged the roads with people and goods.
But the railway remained best avoided. A train ride between the capital and the provincial city Battambang, about 185 miles (300 kilometers) northwest, took more than a day, at a time when a taxi ride took less than four hours.
The Cambodian government shut the system down in November 2009 and awarded the Australian company Toll a 30-year joint venture contract to refurbish and operate it. Toll received an $84 million loan from the Asian Development Bank and others.
Earlier this month, after $5 million in investments in new rails, signs, locomotive repairs and workforce training, the freight service to Touk Meas began operating ahead of Friday's inauguration. The entire railroad -- including new spurs directly to the ports -- is to be operational by 2013.
"Upgrading the infrastructure will improve competitiveness in Cambodia's economy and promote direct investment in Cambodia itself," said Putu Kamayana, director of the development bank's Cambodian office.
For now, only freight will travel the rails, and the main beneficiary in the short run is likely to be Touk Meas' cement industry. Officials said the competition is already pushing down shipping costs, and should decrease costs for goods like fuel oil or rice.
Of greater concern to the thousands of Cambodians living on or near the rails, however, is what will happen to them. On Phnom Penh's outskirts, scores of families live in tin-roof shacks sometimes just an arm's length from passing trains.
As many as 3,650 families could lose either their homes or their livelihoods. The Asian Development Bank said more than $3.5 million has been budgeted to compensate people who will be moved.
That's small consolation to villagers like Khun Sarom, 38, who with his family of five runs a shop out of a bamboo-floored house just a few yards (meters) from the tracks in Phum Kseng, a village about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Phnom Penh. He said he's lived in his house for 20 years, earning about $5 a day selling cigarettes and pirated DVDs but has no title to the land. He said he knew very little about the rail project and had no idea whether he would get any money or land if he was evicted.
"I guess it's good, as long as I'm not kicked out," he said.
North of Phnom Penh, Prak Pheam, 31, said the railroad would put his bamboo train, a rickety carpet-sized contraption powered by what looked to be a lawnmower engine, out of business. He said he earns $25 in a good week, and had hoped he would get some money for losing that income. But he said only a handful of bamboo drivers have been told they would receive anything, and no one really understood how the money was being handed out.
"It's unfair that I'm not getting money," he said. "I'll have to go back to the rice fields. Or get a job on a train."