With the reinstatement of the country’s only passenger train proving popular, editor Marissa Carruthers talks to the man spearheading plans to get the railroad back on track. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
A crowd of people gather on the pristine platform, eager to board the restored train that waits to transport them from the capital to the coast, stopping off at a handful of destinations on the way.
A successful stint during test runs, which ran throughout Khmer New Year and saw ticketless hopefuls turned away on its inaugural trip, set the wheels in motion for a new era of passenger trains in Cambodia, which were halted in 2002 due to the derelict state of the lines.
Last month, Royal Railway, which operates the service under a 30-year concession, announced the passenger service on the 266-kilometre Southern Line was to become a permanent weekend fixture, with Prime Minister Hun Sen taking the eight-hour journey to officially declare it open. While it still needs to stand the test of time, the novelty is far from wearing thin, with ticket sales remaining high, and the country’s rich and famous clamouring for a slice of the rail road action.
“We received a call from the Royal Palace,” says Royal Railway CEO, John Guiry speaking from a plush office at the restored Royal Railway Station in Phnom Penh, just days after Prime Minister Hun Sen took to the tracks. “He is keen to take a trip on it, so we can’t say no.”
Restoration work started in 2010 with the engines, which were brought back to life using a team of international experts. The original carriages were revamped to modern standards and divided into two classes: regular coach class, which is cooled by fans, and upmarket VIP wagons boasting AC and Western toilets. Endless hours were spent repairing, fine-tuning and testing the undercarriage.
Last year, Royal Railway launched its freight business connecting the ports of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Then, following a successful ASEAN conference in October, plans were put in motion to revive the passenger service.
With safety as paramount, a series of test journeys were run to ensure a safe passage before the first passenger train in more than a decade rolled out of Phnom Penh on Apr. 7. The service continued to the end of Khmer New Year – a notorious time for fatal traffic accidents.
“During Khmer New Year, everyone takes to the roads and there is a rise in accidents,” says Guiry. “We wanted to help reduce this by taking vehicles off the road so it seemed the perfect time to run a trial.”
The news created a ripple of excitement in the capital, with tickets for the inaugural trip on the five carriages fit for up to 400 people sold out a week before it set off.
“We were turning people away,” says Guiry, adding that the train ran at 80 to 90 percent capacity for the full route to Sihanoukville. It was such as success that the government requested it become a permanent fixture at weekends.
Travelling at the snail’s pace of 33km/h, the journey costs $6 and takes eight hours – two to three hours longer than by road. But, railway bosses plan on tinkering with the timetable – the train currently waits for lengthy periods at stations – to shave some time off the journey.
However, the train offers a tranquil alternative to treacherous Highway 4. Stopping at several rural locations along the way, as well as Kampot, it clatters through the country’s tranquil countryside, taking in karst hills around Tuk Meas and Kompong Trach, Bokor Mountain and the stunning stretch of coast from Veal Renh, Stung Hau and on to the final station of Sihanoukville.
“Locals have really taken to it,” says Guiry, who adds the fact that motorbikes and cars can also be loaded onto the train has helped push business.
Soa Chantha, 19, took the train with her siblings to visit relatives in Takeo. “This is the second time in my life that I have used the train,” she says. “It’s much more comfortable than getting the bus or riding a moto. It’s good that we now have the chance to try the train in Cambodia.”
A sixth carriage is currently being constructed, and when complete, will mean more frequent services. And there are future hopes that Royal Railway will extend the line further to connect with other parts of the country. Unfortunately the dilapidated Northern Line, which runs from Phnom Penh to Sisophon, needs major work to repair the tracks before this leg of the line can be used.
“I came here with the aim of breathing new life into the railway and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” says Guiry.
For timetables, visit royal-railway.com.