At seven o’clock this morning a train carrying passengers to Sihanoukville, the first in 14 years, gently rolls out of Phnom Penh’s art deco station with two long, triumphant blasts of its horn.
Cambodia’s railways had a promising start: constructed by French colonists in the 30s, they then received international investment from Australia, France, West Germany and China in 50s and 60s when the southern line to the coast was completed. But the Khmer Rouge quickly halted any further progress – no trains ran from 1975-1980 and large sections of track were destroyed – and after a steady decline in use the lines were closed in 2009.
The same year an Australian company, Toll Holdings, was granted a joint 30-year concession with Cambodia’s Royal Group to operate and maintain the railway. (In 2014 Royal Group bought out Toll Holdings shares and wholly maintains and operates the railway). Additional funding of $120 million came from the Asian Development Bank, the Australian government via AUSAid and the OPEC Fund for International Development, with the Cambodian government making up the rest of the estimated total cost of $143 million.
Despite this investment the project quickly ran into difficulties. Mismanagement and poor weather led to delays and work was temporarily halted in 2011. More seriously some families that were relocated to make way for construction were inadequately compensated, a fact admitted in the ADB’s Complaint Review Panel’s 2014 report which provided six recommendations to resolve this and other issues. In some cases forced to live without electricity, water and sanitation, many were also left in crippling debt and made homeless after selling their land just to survive.
On August 31st, 2015, a joint assessment produced by Inclusive Development International and Equitable Cambodia highlighted that the CRP’s own First Annual Monitoring Report identified the ADB was only partially compliant with five-out-of-six recommendations and non-compliant with the remaining measure. Regarding the estimated $3-$4 million compensation deficit payment, arguably the most important short-term remedy, IDI and EC stated, “affected households were thus faced with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of additional compensation, which in some cases monitored by EC has been as low as 4 USD, and were not provided with a meaningful opportunity to appeal.”
In 2013 the southern line was deemed rehabilitated and freight began to move between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. From an initial monthly average of 50, Royal Railway is now moving around 2000-2,500 containers; even in April, generally slower as the nation celebrates Khmer New Year, the estimate is 2,600. The railway’s success is the country’s success: more efficient and reliable transport will improve the economy and open up new trading possibilities; and fewer trucks on the roads will relieve congestion, reduce pollution and could potentially lower the number of road traffic accidents, one of Cambodia’s leading causes of death.
There have been media reports of a planned $11 billion ore line that would run from Preah Vihear in the north to Sihanoukville; apparently in the feasibility stages, if delivered it would be Cambodia’s largest ever development project. Given recent history the impact on people near the tracks could be huge and the call of progress can often shout louder than those affected by it.
I speak to John Guiry, CEO of Royal Railway, once the sunny yellow and royal blue carriages have chugged away around the bend. He stresses to me what, or rather who, the railway is for: “That’s what today is really about: it’s for the Cambodian people.”
The question is: which people?