Gov’t to Finish Northern Rail Line in 2016

The government has set aside some $33 million to finish rebuilding Cambodia’s northern rail line by late next year, according to the Transportation Ministry, reanimating a long-delayed and over-budget project that had been one of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) priorities in the country.

The ADB had put up the bulk of the $143 million it was originally expected to cost to rehabilitate the country’s damaged and dilapidated railway system by 2009. Trains finally started running the full length of the 266-km southern line, from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, in December 2012. But the money ran out after only 63 km of the 386-km northern line, from Phnom Penh to Poipet, were complete.

After failing to convince both the ADB and Australia, the project’s other foreign donor, to finish the job, the Cambodian government has finally decided to pay the $33.5-million bill itself, said Chreung Sok-Tharath, a deputy director of the Transportation Ministry’s railway department.

“It’s all government money,” he said Sunday. “The $33.5 million is already secured; the prime minister [Mr. Hun Sen] signed it already.”

Mr. Sok-Tharath laid out the government’s ambitious schedule in a presentation to the government’s technical working group on the project last month.

According to the presentation, obtained last week, the railway department has broken up the work into seven parts. It hopes to start in September and finish in a year’s time, with trains running between Phnom Penh and Poipet by 2017. On Sunday, Mr. Sok-Tharath said the first request for bids had already gone out and that more would follow soon.

The ADB and the Transportation Ministry have sold the project as a key component of the country’s continued economic development and critical to its success as the region integrates, connecting Cambodia’s main port in Sihanoukville to Thailand via Phnom Penh.

“The railway is the most important because it moves transport from road to railway,” easing the burden on Cambodia’s modest road network and cutting costs for companies and consumers, Mr. Sok-Tharath said.

He conceded that the plan was “kind of an emergency repair” after the government failed to secure additional funding from the ADB.

“The government process takes a long time, and we tried to negotiate with the [ADB] but it said no because of the resettlement problems,” he said.

In early 2014, the ADB admitted to making major mistakes while planning and implementing the project, which forced about 1,000 families to give up homes they had built on or next to the forgotten tracks and move into ill-equipped, government-run resettlement sites.

The ADB is spending millions to fix its mistakes, though the government has refused to approve some of its recommended remedies, including a scheme to help the families pay off the debts they have taken on because of their evictions.

And even if the northern line is finished late next year, Mr. Sok-Tharath said, the trains will only be running at about 15 kph, a fraction of the 50 kph envisioned in the original rehabilitation plan.

“If we spend this money, then the trains can run from Phnom Penh to Poipet,” he said. “This is just to allow the trains to run.”

According to his presentation last month, the southern line is having its troubles, too.

Commuter services have not started, it says, because delays in resettling families have stymied efforts to refurbish old train stations. Even the freight service has been “significantly restricted” because the trains can only run at less than half the planned speed, making the trips more than twice as long as originally anticipated.

The delays and controversies finally convinced Australia’s Toll Group to pull out of its joint-venture to run and maintain the railway system in December, leaving its local partner, business mogul Kith Meng’s Royal Group, as the sole concessionaire.

A man who answered Mr. Meng’s phone Sunday said the Royal Group chairman was unavailable. The group’s chief financial officer, Mark Hanna, did not reply to a request for comment.

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