Standing beside his decaying lorry at Samrong Railroad Station in Phnom Penh last month, operator Phin Theoun anxiously waited for customers. The lorry, a wooden platform powered by a small engine that taxis customers up and down the railroad tracks, was falling apart—much like the business itself.
“It’s too difficult to earn money for a living,” he said, adding that a 5-km lorry ride costs 500 riel (about $0.13).
Phin Theoun, 42, is one of more than 300 others who operate lorries on the country’s two national railroad lines, one of which runs from Phnom Penh to Sisophon in Banteay Meanchey province, while the other stretches from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.
The lorries, which cost from $200 to $300 to build, popped up in the early 1980s after Khmer Rouge rebels destroyed sections of the railroad, making long train rides impossible.
“At that time, the train was not able to run on the railroad,” said Thu Sara, chief of the administrative department at Royal Railways Cambodia, a division in the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. “So the lorry replaced the train.”
The small platforms can reach speeds of 30 to 40 kph as they travel short distances, usually from one district to another.
The lorry business is risky, and not just because it is technically illegal. Besides steep competition for fares, lorry drivers must pay local railroad station chiefs 1,000 riel (about $0.25) daily to tell them the train schedule so they can avoid potentially fatal accidents. The lorry is light enough for operators to pick it up and take it off the tracks when they see a train coming.
Due to safety concerns and plans to link Cambodia’s railroads to an Asean rail system, the government now wants to rid the rails of lorries.
Officials expect the Council of Ministers to soon issue a directive banning lorries from operating on the rails.
“The lorry service is not safe,” Thu Sara said. “But it has become a popular way to travel locally. It is like a chronic disease…. It’s hard to cure.”
The tracks themselves, most of which were put in place about 80 years ago during the French colonial area, are worn out and unsafe. Besides natural deterioration, villagers living near the railroads have been accused of stealing wooden railroad ties to burn for cooking.
In April last year, a train car full of gasoline tipped over in Takeo province. Though no gasoline spilled and no passengers were hurt, rail officials said at the time that more accidents are likely because the tracks are too old and the government does not have the money to properly maintain them.
The cost of improving the railroads could run quite high. Of immediate concern to the government is beginning construction on a 48-km stretch of railway from Poipet town to Sisophon, estimated to cost $16.5 million. Completing that section would link Cambodia’s rail system to a planned Asean rail line from Singapore to Kunming, China.
“We are integrating into Asean, and the railway is a huge plan for Asean development,” said Sokhom Phekawanmony, director of Royal Railways Cambodia.
Malaysia agreed to provide $8 million worth of used equipment, including rail and tracks, Commerce Ministry Secretary of State Sok Siphana said in September. It remains to be seen from where the rest of the material and money will come, though officials said construction on the project could begin late this year.
Linking to the Asean railroad means the government will face the additional cost of improving the dilapidated tracks. About $100 million is needed to upgrade the rest of the 338-km rail segment from Sisophon to Phnom Penh, Sokhom Phekawanmony estimated. In addition, $300 million is needed to build a new railroad linking Phnom Penh to the Vietnam border.
As railroad developments get under way, lorry drivers like Phin Theoun will not be the only ones to suffer. The thousands of poor people who rely on lorries to trade goods or go to work will also be hurt.
“My salary cannot afford to pay the motodop,” Tha Saroun, a 20-year-old garment worker, said as she waited to hop on a lorry at Samrong rail station, located in Dangkao district.
She pays 500 riel to get from her home in Kandal province’s Ang Snoul district to Huy Fu garment factory in Dangkao. Motor taxi drivers usually charge her 5,000 riel (about $1.25) to make that trip—a devastating expense on a salary of about $1.15 per day.
Lorry drivers say they often help farmers transport rice from their villages to the market.
“My lorry can carry 20 bags of paddy or 20 people per trip,” said Yi Sopy, 41. “To stop the lorry service means that people will need to spend more money on transportation.”
Since the country’s railroads are not busy, and won’t be for the foreseeable future, now is not the time to ban lorries from the tracks, said opposition lawmaker Son Chhay.
“If you go abroad, you will see 50 trains come through the railroads every hour,” he said. “But our railroads carry only one or two trains per day.”
Nonetheless, with plans for the Asean rail links chugging along, the government intends to bounce lorries from the tracks.
“I think to stop lorry operators is good for them,” Sokhom Phekawanmony said, “because they will get the benefit from the railway’s development.”
Back at Samrong Railroad Station, however, Phin Theoun, has his doubts. He said he will demolish his lorry and burn the wood for cooking, while he will sell the engine.
But, as for his future income, he said he is uncertain what he will do. “Maybe I’ll go to the rice field to help people to harvest rice for money,” he said.