From his seat inside the steam engine, the train driver eyes the tracks ahead as he leads a long line of wagon cars toward Phnom Penh, the train’s wheels turning slowly beneath him on warped steel track.It’s tricky work here on the route from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, but the old driver knows this railroad well. He’s worked on it for more than 30 years.
At 63, he still moves easily inside the engine car, but his body is scarred from his work. His arms are marked where bullets grazed and mine shrapnel bored in.
That was the cost of driving a train during Cambodia’s years of civil war. A slow moving train was an easy target for hungry soldiers. He was shot at by men he could see and nearly blown up by mines he didn’t see until it was too late.
He felt responsible for his passengers’ lives but continued to drive through the worst years of turmoil because the trains were the only means of transportation for the country’s poor. If he stopped driving someone would not see their relatives; someone else would not sell their livestock.
That’s how he found himself navigating these tracks through the war years as the steam engine, chugging loudly along the railroad, gave him away to whoever lay along the route ahead, waiting.
“I still remember November 29th, 1979, when my train was attacked by the [Khmer Rouge] with six B40 rockets,” said the driver, Kong Som Oeun. He had been on the job for just a few months since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The train rocked when the shells hit. He ran into the jungle with the surviving passengers as gunfire cracked behind their backs.
“They shot into the wagons, killing many passengers and train workers,” he said.
When they returned the next day the passengers found the train abandoned by the attackers. A lot of people died in that first ambush, said Kong Som Oeun. Among the bodies were 16 Khmer Rouge and 13 Vietnamese soldiers, acting as an onboard militia to protect the train.
Kong Som Oeun has been ambushed 13 times since he started driving locomotives in 1968. His trains have run over seven land mines. Raiding soldiers have stolen countless tons of food and cargo under his watch. And he’s among the lucky.
Since 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were driven into the jungle, seven train drivers for the Royal Railway of Cambodia have been killed in the line of duty. Another 167 train workers—from technicians and porters to militia who ride along to protect the trains—have been killed and 375 injured.
An official list kept by the railroad that documents deaths and injuries since 1983 says 712 passengers were killed during the ambushes. Another 1,521 passengers were injured.
Kong Som Oeun kept driving because he loved trains, he said, and because he knew that without the trains, countless numbers of Cambodia’s poor would be unable to move between Sihanoukville and Battambang.
“I have loved heavy engines since I was young,” he said. “It is interesting for my life. Especially the trains, because Cambodia does not have a lot of cars, and our people are poor. Most of them are farmers and our roads are poorly constructed so the trains are useful for transportation at a cheap price,” he said.
Kong Som Oeun started working for the railway in 1965. He was a technician for three years before he was made an engineer. When the country inaugurated a new rail line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville on Dec 20, 1969, King Norodom Sihanouk gave him a medal for his service. Of all the train drivers who worked for the railroad that year, Kong Som Oeun is the only one still on the job.
His service to the nation’s railroads is all the more remarkable when considered against the backdrop of the revolving governments he worked for: until 1970, it was the rule of King Sihanouk. Then he worked under the US-backed Lon Nol regime. The Khmer Rouge toppled the government in 1975, then were toppled themselves four years later.
Through the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, from 1979 to 1990, then the State of Kampuchea from 1990 to 1993, and finally the Kingdom of Cambodia, Kong Som Oeun drove trains.
His years of service were interrupted only through Pol Pot’s regime. He fled the city in the mass evacuation of Phnom Penh, and then denied being a train driver when asked his profession by Khmer Rouge soldiers to avoid the dark fate that awaited almost everyone with professional training.
He lived in Takeo province until 1979, working at a labor camp and barely supporting his wife and one son. He returned to Phnom Penh in April 1979, just days after the Khmer Rouge regime fell to invading Vietnamese forces.
He led his family to the train station, where they found the engines destroyed and train cars abandoned. Along with 10 other former employees, he started to repair the available train engines, and service was soon restarted.
He continued to drive through the worst years of the fighting, when soldiers would ambush the train for food and whatever supplies they could steal. The tactics were usually the same, he said. First the train hit a mine, or was slammed by B40 rocket fire. Then the soldiers would open fire from the jungle, felling people as they ran out of the train in panic.
Kong Som Oeun ran with the passengers most of the time. Just once he stayed in the engine. Soldiers had climbed on top of the train and were shooting through the roof at the people inside. A scar on his right arm reminds him of that day, when a bullet glanced off of his body.
He has scars on his memory as well. In 1983, he returned to his disabled train after an ambush and saw an infant, still alive, miraculously unharmed, clinging to a dead woman in the wreckage.
Kong Som Oeun had to rely on the design of the train engines to withstand the attacks. Windows at the front of the engine were made as small as possible. A reinforced metal wall was installed on the front and sides of the train engines to deflect bullets.
To trigger land mines before they destroyed the engine, most trains began pushing two cargo cars in front. Passengers, aware that they were taking a risk, were allowed to ride in the cars for free.
A militia was also hired to ride with the trains to battle the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Lt Col Sok Neardey, chief of the railroad militia, said that from 1986 to 1996 the militia met Khmer Rouge ambushes 1,168 times. Some 21 militia members were killed and 125 injured.
Today Kong Som Oeun lives in a house near the tracks, where he and his wife raised three children. It’s so close to the tracks that his wife can take a few steps out their door and hand Kong Som Oeun lunch as he drives by on his way to Battambang or Sihanoukville.
Kong Som Oeun says he will retire soon. His hope is that the government will renovate the railroads before they fall into complete disrepair.
The numerous ambushes and raids took a tremendous toll on the railroad. Official records from the national railroad that go back as far as 1983 show that train ambushes destroyed nearly 10,000 track sections, each of them 10 to 20 meters long, for a total of up to 20 km of track. Some 450 wagon cars, 88 steel bridges, 76 concrete bridges and 46 culverts were also destroyed.
Kong Som Oeun said that unless the country moves to protect the railroads, they could all be lost.
“The world is developing up-to-date trains, but Cambodia is still using an out-of-date train system,” he said. The country has the one 1923 steam engine, and 7 diesel electric engines, imported from Czechoslovakia between 1990 and 1994.
The tracks themselves are as old as 70 years. The oldest section of track, the line from Phnom Penh to Battambang, was installed between 1929 to 1934.
Kong Som Oeun said the train used to move along the tracks at 55 to 80 km per hour, much faster than the speed the trains move today. Now, because the tracks are so bad, most trains rarely top 25 km an hour.
“If the government ignores the trains, it could be only 10 years or so before all of the engines are too damaged to work,” he said.
The attacks stopped in 1996, the same year that Ieng Sary led a mass defection of Khmer Rouge soldiers to join the government’s side in the ongoing war. That year there were 81 ambushes and just one person was killed. That was down from 1985, when 35 people were killed in attacks on trains.
A Khmer Rouge ambush in 1994 that ended in the abduction, and eventual execution, of three westerners scared most tourists off of the trains. But tourism officials now promote train travel in Cambodia by marketing the very thing that Kong Som Oeun says is in need of replacement: the antiquated steam engine.
“It’s a favorite for visitors, since around the world few countries are still using a steam engine,” said Rith Moeun, chief of marketing management for the national railway.
Local tour agencies have rented the steam engine several times for tour groups to visit Pursat, Takeo and Kompot provinces, said train driver Ouk Ourk.
“Western people enjoy it very much,” he said.
Kong Som Oeun said he has enjoyed it too, despite the ragged history of his time driving the nation’s trains. Retirement is coming in three to four months. After his years of piloting Cambodia’s trains, some might say it’s a miracle he made it that far.