mong russei district, Battambang province – To cut off a major transportation line used by government forces 24 years ago, the Khmer Rouge blasted the steel trusses of the Stung Mong River railway bridge, turning them into twisted and torn strips of rusted metal.
The bridge, now propped up by blocks of thick wood resembling a giant game of Jenga, is one of hundreds of battle scars along the railway and epitomizes the decay and destruction that has befallen the country’s 80-year-old rail system.
The northern rail line stretches from Phnom Penh to Battambang, and the southern line runs from the capital to Kampot and then Sihanoukville. The few trains that travel both routes trundle along at 5 to 10 km per hour over damaged bridges and bent, loose tracks where derailments are common.
Repairing the entire 652 km of Cambodia’s railway is also slow going.
In 2006, the Asian Development Bank assembled a $73 million loan—from the bank and several other sources—to rehabilitate the country’s rail system.
But only a fraction of that loan has been dispersed and major work has yet to begin.
An Australian firm, Toll Holdings, signed an agreement with the government in June to take over management of the railway in a bid to turn it into a viable means of mass transport. But Toll requires that supplementary loans of $68.6 million, on top of the original $73 million, be made available to rehabilitate the rail system’s infrastructure.
With Toll expecting the loan to come on stream, its concession became effective on Oct 22.
But so far only $7 million of the original $73 million ADB-organized loan has been released and further release will require the approval of the hoped-for supplementary loan of $68.6 million. And in a chicken and egg scenario, for the ADB and AusAid to commit to providing their portions of the second loan they are requiring a concessionaire. The Cambodian government is providing $5.1 million of the supplementary loan.
“It’s the first railway concession in Southeast Asia, so there is no previous experience in the region about how these things are done,” said Gilles Goepfert, the Asia-Pacific Managing Director of the French Firm TSO, which has the government contract to rebuild the railway’s infrastructure.
“There are still a few black clouds on the horizon. The [original] money does not become effective until a supplementary package is signed,” Mr Goepfert said.
Though TSO expect the ADB and AusAid to give final approval on the supplementary loans in December, if they don’t, the rehabilitation project could be dead in the water.
“There is no reason to believe that it won’t be [signed],” said Arjun Goswami, head of the ADB’s regional integration and cooperation group of the Southeast Asia department.
“We work on a positive assumption,” he said.
“It will be quite beneficial when it happens and it’s very likely that it’s going to happen.”
In a far more guarded response, the Australian Embassy said only that AusAid is considering the loan request. And for its part, Toll Holdings would not respond to questions about its plans for the rail system.
TSO, however, is working on its plans and a start date in December.
According to TSO work would start on the 166-km line between Phnom Penh and Kampot and the 100 km of track between Kampot and Sihanoukville. If the work begins in December, and continues at a pace of 750 meters per day, the southern tracks should be finished by April 2011.
The more than 338 km of lines that stretch from Phnom Penh To Sisophan will be tackled afterwards and could be completed by April 2012.
An additional 48-km stretch of track from Sisophan to Poipet, which was dismantled and sold for scrap by the Khmer Rouge, needs to be completely re-laid in order to possibly one day connect the Cambodian rail line to Thailand.
Much of the work involves relaying old tracks on newly-repaired beds, rebuilding damaged bridges and some demining, TSO staff said.
“This project is basically to rehabilitate this railway so that it can run at speeds of 50, 60 km an hour. So that the bridges are safe. So the [tracks] are smooth but it’s not going to be world class by any stretch of the imagination,” said Paul Power, a railway consultant working for the Canadian firm Canarail and advising the Ministry of Transport as well as the ADB.
Mr Power explained that Toll’s concession became effective on Oct 22, and in anticipation of the supplementary loan approval, the firm is moving personnel into Cambodia.
In the first five years of Toll’s 30-year concession agreement, the company will not pay the government any money, though afterwards fixed fees from Toll will go toward repaying the original loans, Mr Power said.
The plan is for trains to carry about 1,000 tons of cargo with as many as five trains running each day. Though depending on Toll’s success, 10 trains or more daily are possible, he said.
“It’s hard to say because it depends on the business that materializes, and to a certain extent that’s up to Toll going after the business,” Mr Power said.
Ly Borin, Royal Railways of Cambodia deputy director general, said a working rail system provide an alternative to transporting cargo by road, which will reduce damage to Cambodia’s roads. Trucks also don’t have the same capacity for cargo as trains. The railway will become an integral part of the transport of steel, concrete, and the export of agricultural and other products such as garments, he said.
“All around the world, except for the ship, only the train can take such heavy, large loads so cheaply. It will help the economy a lot,” he said, adding that trains already travel two or three times a day between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. But train speeds are currently so low that trips by car are six times as fast, he said.
In the future, the government will study the feasibility of a 257 km railway from Phnom Penh to Loc Ninh. Cost estimates for that alone run at about $500 million, Mr Borin added.
Khaou Phallaboth, president of Khaou Chuly Group, which owns K-Cement in Kampot province, said a functioning railway is a necessity for his plant. Currently his company uses trucks to transport the 1 million tons of cement it produces every year, something that is subject to delays due to road conditions and traffic.
With typical trucks able to carry only 20 tons each, it takes 50,000 truckloads to transport his cement annually, he said.
“In two or three years time we will double our production. It would be 100,000 trucks. It will really be a nightmare in terms of logistics. So we need this railway to be set up,” he said.
On a recent inspection of the railway in Battambang province by TSO staff the vegetation was so over grown on some portions of the track that the rails were invisible and in some sections submerged in large puddles of rain water.
Of the 48 railway bridges in the north of the country, 14 require complete reconstruction, according to a TSO report. On the Southern lines’ 72 bridges, only two need major repairs and 16 need minor repairs.
Yves Deguin, a civil works manager for TSO who has rebuilt railway bridges in Africa, said he has seen railways in worse condition.
“I’m surprised it is still working,” Mr Deguin said.
“They made a lot of temporary bridges. And today it still works,” he said, as he inspected the bombed-out, Jenga-like bridge on the Stung Mong River. “This bridge was once blown up, then the villagers put it back up and now we will repair it,” he added.
Not far from Mr Deguin, local resident Chim Chanson, 42, recounted the day when the Khmer Rouge blew up the bridge.
“I am glad to hear they will renew and repair it,” he said. But throwing a skeptical eye over the damage, he added: “I didn’t know that it could be repaired.”