THE international connection between Cambodia and Thailand’s metre-gauge railway networks, pledged by both countries’ prime ministers in 2015, was symbolically achieved in September 2016 following the construction of a bridge over a stream that marks the border.
However, question marks hang over when trains will travel north to Thailand beyond Sisophon - the junction town where travellers either go to Phnom Penh or the tourist centre of Siem Reap and the Angkor temple complex.
Passenger services started in April 2016 on the line south of Phnom Penh, adding to freight services that began in 2010. Yet a December 2016 deadline to complete work on the northern section to permit running between Cambodia and Thailand was not met.
Undersecretary of state Mr Ly Borin cites procedural difficulties, bad weather and problems with residents seeking compensation or relocation for contributing to the delays. Construction continues on the missing 8km link through the border town of Poipet, which will establish the international connection. However, work on restoring the track between Sisophon and Phnom Penh remains incomplete.
In January, transport ministry spokesman Mr Va Simsorya, said that work on the 42km Poipet - Sisophon section, which was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, would finish this year. The Sisophon - Battambang stretch, the next major station on the line and Cambodia’s second largest town, and the stretch to Phnom Penh, which is likely to cost $US 150m, would follow, with plans set to become clearer in 2018.
Despite the delays, Mr John Guiry, CEO of train operating franchisee Royal Railway, is anticipating starting some services over the northern line next month.
Cambodia’s metre gauge, mainly single-track system dates from the 1930s with the 388km northern line from Phnom Penh to Poipet, which was built by the French and financed with WW1 reparations. In 1942 a connection using steel sleepers was made with Thailand’s network, but international services as far as Battambang ceased after a few years for political reasons.
Cambodia’s second line - the 266km southern link between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville - was built after independence in the 1960s, with assistance from France, West Germany, China and Australia, which donated rolling stock. Sihanoukville port was built to reduce Cambodia’s reliance on neighbouring countries’ port facilities.
During the Vietnam war the railway suffered from repeated bombing while considerable damage occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Yet when security and the economic situation improved, rail freight traffic suffered. As Cambodia became almost self-sufficient in rice production, imports from Thailand disappeared. Sugar imports from Thailand, that were sold onto Vietnam, ended when Vietnam built refineries. Improvements to the main highway from Sisophon via Battambang to Phnom Penh also saw traffic switch from the unreliable railway to road.
In December 2006, just as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) proposed the rehabilitation of the network and reconstruction of the Thai link, Cambodia’s only passenger service, on the northern line from Battambang to Phnom Penh, was reduced to once a week. With revenue said to be $US 1.5m, the government stopped subsidising the railway; the writing was on the wall and by 2008 all services ceased.
However, things did begin to look up. The ADB and oil producing countries’ cartel Opec agreed an $US 80m loan in 2007 for rehabilitation. Australian aid agency AusAID added $US 23m and the Cambodian government put in $US 15.2m. A year later Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group and Australian company Toll Holdings entered a 30-year $US 143m joint venture.
Toll Royal Railways planned to restore the infrastructure and operate train services. It would rehabilitate existing tracks in 50km sections using flash butt-welded rail, and planned to finish the work in 2011. The deal also included construction of a new 225km link with Vietnam at Loc Ninh - but not the right to run trains over it.
The Cambodian government subsequently transferred all railway property to Toll Royal, which became responsible for maintenance of stations, a 98Ha depot at Phnom Penh and the Sihanoukville bulk container port. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport set up a Railway Department to act as regulator, which is staffed by 300 people including 160 engineers and technicians. Toll Royal’s payroll was just over half that.
Toll appointed French-Thai joint venture partners Travaux du Sud-Ouest (TSO) & Nawarath, for the civil engineering work, which subsequently subcontracted part of the construction to Vietnam-registered company Sinopacific Construction.
On the southern line 24 bridges required attention with four needing major work; 12 culverts needed repairs and 37 new ones were built. On the northern line, where 42km of track no longer existed, 32 new bridges were needed and 35 more needed repair; 77 new culverts had to be built and three repaired.
After two years, freight services recommenced on part of the southern line. However, four years into the contract, in 2012, TSO wrote a letter of termination to the minister, suspended activities and moved equipment and staff off the northern line. More than 70% of the work had been completed. Toll announced a 12-month suspension of work partly on the grounds of exceptional flooding in the country that prevented work being carried out.
Claims of below par construction work were dismissed by Toll, as were accusations of not adhering to recognised railway industry standards. After a ministry inspection found failures in inspection regimes of track-related items, Toll declared it was “a training exercise.”
In September 2012 Toll restarted hauling construction materials but exited the agreement in December giving up its 55% holding. It said lower than expected returns and delays in track rehabilitation works by external contractors had impeded efficient operation and economic viability.
Despite a consortium with Chinese backing, and including Sinopacific Construction Consultancy and Malaysian firm Hikmat Asia, proposing a 60-year, $US 850m take-over of the railway, Royal Group was granted a 30-year operating licence to run train services and maintain infrastructure and rolling stock, but not to be involved in rehabilitation. Guiry, a career railwayman from Victoria, Australia, and former chief operating officer of Toll Royal, was appointed CEO of the retitled Royal Railways.
By April 2012, a year after all work was scheduled for completion, only 42km from Sisophon to the outskirts of Poipet had been rebuilt with concrete sleepers capable of bearing 20-tonne axleloads.
A new deadline of 2013 to complete the northern line work was agreed at a meeting of transport officials from Senior Association of South Eastern Asian Nations (Asean) in December 2012. This deadline soon came and went and it wasn’t until July 2014 that work to reconnect the Cambodian and Thai networks began with the construction of the 43m cross-border bridge. State Railway of Thailand had secured Baht 2.8bn ($US 79m) to finance the structure and to improve 176km of track from Khlong Sib Kao station in Chachoengsao to Aranyaprathet. Italian-Thai Development was contracted to do the work.
While Thailand has prevented encroachment over the disused 6km trackbed between the cross-border bridge and Aranyaprathet station, Cambodia faced a bigger task to rebuild the remaining missing section in Poipet. The town’s station, used to store rails for the project, was the only evidence that the 1942 line existed.
Installation of 8km of new track has now taken place through the town centre along the main road designated Asian Highway 1, which connects the two countries, while work is progressing on signalling upgrades and to replace equipment destroyed by wars and guerrilla activity. The new line features eight electrically-operated automatic level crossing barriers and a tablet system may be introduced to manage increased train movements. The current safe working system utilises train control based at Phnom Penh from where every train is tracked by GPS.
Construction delays have inevitably translated into budget overruns. The original estimate was $US 73m plus 178km of used track, worth $US 2.8m, donated by Malaysia. This came from the 2007 doubling and electrification of the Rawang - Ipoh line.
Yet figures revealed in 2013 showed supplementary funding had brought the cost to nearly $US 142m. In July 2014, after failing to obtain additional outside funding, the Cambodian government provided a further $US 33.1m.
Construction of a passing loop and immigration facilities at Poipet station accounted for a fifth of the money; completing track renovation was budgeted to cost $US 10m, with earth works, urgent bridge repairs, sidings and some track work at Phnom Penh accounting for the remainder.
These higher than anticipated costs led transport minister Mr Sun Chantol to admit in December that the government is only able to allocate a further $US 20m to the Poipet - Sisophon section with a “step-by-step” approach to completing final restoration of the existing sections.
While work on the northern section has struggled to produce results, the southern link from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is now carrying regular traffic.
ADB, as major funder, announced in March 2013 that the southern track was fully rehabilitated, and freight services started over the whole line. This was followed by passenger services in April 2016, with a daily service in each direction between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville at weekends and public holidays. A car shuttle is also offered. Renovated two-car DMUs capable of carrying 200 passengers are used with three more on order. Seven passenger coaches are also available for the northern line service with two extra available for use on the southern line.
Traction for freight services is provided by two new 746kW Chinese locomotives ordered by Toll but track conditions initially prevented their use. These have now joined 10 rehabilitated Alstom and two Czech-built locomotives in revenue service along with more than 100 rehabilitated freight wagons. But with workshops built in the late 1920s for steam equipment, maintenance of today’s fleet is reliant on OEMs for parts and service.
When services began, train speeds averaged 19km/h. Guiry says all services this year will be running at the design speed of 50km/h, with some northern sections operating at 80-100km/h. However, Simsorya said that trains between Sisophon and Poipet would operate at 50km/h. In December he said that Thailand had fulfilled its promise to provide a locomotive to operate the international service, with Cambodia set to provide coaches.
The Southern line now carries around 50 freight services a week but expansion of intermodal services, currently 3000-4000 TEUs per month, is compromised by track shortcomings.
At Sihanoukville port, containers must be offloaded to trucks for a 300m run from train to wharf. This double handling, users claim, removes the financial benefit of using cheaper rail for the transport of containers. Others say commercial branch lines, such as the one to Green Trade Warehouse in Phnom Penh, have not been repaired.
In developments separate from the operating franchise, Royal Railways is negotiating to provide a 310m siding to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone, which is 20km from the city centre, and was chosen for its proximity to the railway.
Royal Railway is also planning a light rail service from Phnom Penh city centre to the airport after the prime minister’s decision to reject a multi-lane highway project with work due to start last month. This will use 8km of existing track with an additional 1.5km extension inserted into the centre of an existing highway to the airport. The company is sourcing three self-propelled light rail vehicles - either new or second hand - to operate the service and passengers will be able to check in luggage at the city centre station.
These lines form part of an ambitious Southeast Asian railway master plan. Yet judging by the slow progress in Cambodia, it may be many years before they see the light of day.