Construction Woes Plague Railway Project

The rehabilitation of Cambodia’s dilapidated railway network has encountered delays due to poor construction work and inappropriate surveying methods when making plans to lay down tracks, according to a draft review of the ongoing $140 million project conducted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the government earlier this month.

A draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and the ADB obtained yesterday states that poor construction work on between 6 and 12 km of the southern railway line had contributed to delays on the line of up to 335 days.

It also states that initial surveying on where to lay down track on the 385-km northern line did not match where construction work would actually take place, meaning that further resettlements of families living in Poipet City could occur in the future.

The information in the MOU appears to shed light on why Australian firm Toll Holdings, which has a 30-year concession to operate the railway network with the Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group, decided in March to suspend operations until the southern line has been completed.

The ADB yesterday confirmed that the MOU existed but that it had not yet been finalized. An official at the Ministry of Public Works declined to comment on the draft review.

“Works on the last 6 km through Poipet to the border with Thailand started in April 2012. [S]ince commencing this work, it has been discovered that the alignment used for determining the railway COI [corridor of impact] was marked on the ground without using appropriate survey methods,” the draft MOU states.

“This has led to a situation where the COI used for resettlement activities does not fit with the alignment required for construction activities. In order to physically build the railway more households may be affected and additional resettlement may be required,” it continues. “This is a major issue for all stakeholders and must be resolved as a matter of urgency.”

The railway project is affecting 4,000 families across the country, of which 1,050 require relocation. Of that number, 73 percent have already been resettled, according to the ADB.

Construction of the railway is being carried out by France’s TSO (Cambodia) Co. Ltd. and engineering work is being done by Japan’s Nippon Koei Co. According to the MOU, the relationship between the two firms has become “strained” due to the problems hindering the project.

“The mission strongly encourages the Supervision Consultant [Nippon Koei] and the Contractor [TSO Cambodia] to develop a more amicable and mutually respectful mode of cooperation,” the draft MOU states.

A spokesperson for the ADB yesterday said that it was normal for challenges to arise in large-scale infrastructure projects and that the bank would not comment on the contents of the draft MOU.

“This is one of the largest infrastructure projects undertaken in Cambodia, and as with all infrastructure projects—even in affluent, resource-rich countries—unanticipated challenges can arise,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The MOU is between the government and ADB, and has not yet been finalized. ADB does not comment on proprietary information.”

Claude Petit, country manager for TSO Cambodia, declined to comment on its relationship with Nippon.

“There are difficulties like in any other project,” Mr. Petit said. “We are all on the same boat and all have the same problems for the same reasons.”

Officials at Nippon Koei could not be reached and Ly Borin, director of the Ministry of Public Work’s railway department, declined to comment.

Adding further critique to the railway project, the draft MOU states that while “significant improvements” have been made to workers’ accommodation and amenities on the southern line, conditions are still far from adequate.

“The camps…are mostly garbage-strewn and water supply in some camps are not regularly replenished,” the draft MOU states.

“The camps for the workers as well as security personnel at the northern line lack the basic provisions (proper accommodation facilities, safe water supply, hygienic toilets, etc.) noted in the southern line,” it adds.

The draft MOU goes on to state: “There was also serious disregard of safety precautions by workers.”

“[S]ome were seen standing right below the suspended concrete sleepers and are not wearing safety hats,” the MOU says.

Mr. Petit said he was unaware of any of the problems mentioned in the draft MOU. “We have a collective bargaining agreement [with the workers], so there is no special problems,” he said. “I am not aware of any mistreatment.”

So far, only one of the network’s three lines has been completed: 48 km between Poipet City and Serei Saophoan City in Banteay Meanchey. Work on the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville line is 61.5 percent complete, while the 386-km line between Phnom Penh and Poipet is just 27.8 percent complete, according to the draft MOU.

The southern line was initially expected to be completed in late 2011, but is now expected to be complete in October of this year, although the draft MOU warns that heavy rainfall could cause further delays into 2013.

The ADB has so far contributed $84 million to the project and has said it will not provide any further funds for its completion, even though the project is running out of money and could need an additional $100 million. AusAID, the international aid arm of the Australian government, has contributed $21.5 million toward the project and the rest has come from the Malaysian government and the OPEC fund for international development.

(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)

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