Winners and losers as Cambodia reopens railway

Cambodia has re-opened a 110-kilometre stretch of railway track, as a first step towards boosting regional trade with its neighbours.

It's hoped by 2013, the railway will link the capital Phnom Penh to its borders with Thailand and Vietnam. The first section which was officially opened on the weekend, runs 120-kiloemtres southwest from Phnom Penh to Touk Meas in Kampot province. But an infrastructure project that involves reconstructing a nation's entire railway system inevitably has winners and losers.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael
Speakers: Prak Phea, Cambodian norrie driver; Fiona Cochaud, charge d'affaires at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh; Putu Kamayana, the Asian Development Bank country head; Wayne Hunt, CEO and president of Toll Global Logistics

CARMICHAEL: There are currently two ways of getting around by rail in Cambodia. There is this way:


Which is the sound of a train leaving Phnom Penh station last week.

And then there is this way:


They might sound a bit similar, but the chances are you have never travelled on the second one. It is known here as the flying carpet.

For 20 years the flying carpet - or norrie - has been a key way for rural Cambodians to travel between villages along the country's decrepit railways.

The flying carpet is also popular with tourists looking for something different.

A flying carpet is simply a bamboo bed on wheels, and with a small motor attached it zips along the buckled rails at about 35 kilometres an hour.

It takes just a minute to assemble a norrie, which is just as well since Cambodia's old rail system is a single line. So when two norries meet, convention has it that the driver with the lighter load dismantles his norrie to let the other pass.

But next year all of the norrie drivers will be out of business. Cambodia's railway is being overhauled after decades of war and neglect, and there will be no room for flying carpets.

Prak Phea has been a norrie driver for 16 years, riding a 25-kilometre length of track near Pursat town, which lies 200 kilometres northwest of Phnom Penh.

He tells me that he doesn't yet know what he will do for alternative employment, but whatever it is, it probably won't pay as well as this job, which nets him up to 50 dollars a week.

Just over half of the 142 million dollars this project is costing has come in the form of a loan from the Asian Development Bank, or ADB.

Most of the rest came from the Australian government and from Phnom Penh, which last year signed a concession deal with a private company to run the upgraded system for 30 years.

Putu Kamayana, the ADB's country head, says this public-private partnership will benefit Cambodia in more ways than simply improving the country's infrastructure.

KAMAYANA: That's a very big step and a very bold step by the government, but certainly by also improving the transport infrastructure it will improve ultimately Cambodia's competitiveness in the global economy and promote foreign direct investment into Cambodia.

CARMICHAEL: By next year the southern line of the upgraded rail system will connect Phnom Penh with the southern port of Sihanoukville. By 2013, the 400-kilometre-long northern line will connect the capital with Thailand.

Fiona Cochaud is the charge d'affaires at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh. She says Cambodia will reap rewards in a number of areas.

FIONA COCHAUD: Well there are a lot of benefits for the railway. It's going to create jobs; it will lead to economic growth; it's going to help Cambodia with its exports by making access to the port more competitive. It's also an important part of Australia's support for broader regional economic integration and connectivity.

CARMICHAEL: When the government finally shut down Cambodia's battered rail network a few years ago, decades of conflict and neglect meant that trains were practically at a standstill.

Wayne Hunt is the CEO and president of Toll Global Logistics, whose parent company, Australian firm Toll Holdings, won the rail concession.

Hunt says matters are now much improved on the 110-kilometre long section of rail between Phnom Penh and the southern town of Touk Meas, which opened last week to freight traffic.

WAYNE HUNT: When we are fully operational it will be an average speed of 50 kilometres an hour. The railway prior to it closing down was actually running at 5 kilometres an hour. So as you can see we are bringing quite a lot of productivity back into the economy of Cambodia.

CARMICHAEL: In most of the world rail freight is cheaper than road freight, and Toll hopes that much of the freight currently going by road in Cambodia will switch to rail.

Whether a regular passenger service will resume is at this stage an open question.

But for years some have dreamed of a pan-Asian railway, and for just as long Cambodia's defunct railway has been the missing link.

It still is, but the resumption of commercial traffic last week on the first stretch of line marks the beginning of the realization of that dream.

Once this upgrade is completed, the final exercise will be to build a line between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam - something both governments say they will do.

And at that point the gap in the pan-Asian railway will be closed, and it will be possible for train buffs with plenty of time on their hands to get on a train in Singapore, and get off again in Scotland.


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