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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Plans for Trans-Asia Railway snagged at Mekong crossing

Plans for Trans-Asia Railway snagged at Mekong crossing

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The Cambodian leg of the Trans-Asia Railway is likely to cost more than initially hoped.

A new study suggests the cost to build the Cambodian portion of a key rail line connecting Kunming, China, to Singapore may present hurdle to completion

Neither will want to go it alone at that price.

Plans for a rail network linking Singapore and Kunming, China, and all points between has hit a series of cost hurdles in Cambodia that will likely require additional funding to overcome, according to the initial findings of a Chinese feasibility study seen by the Post.

Sources close to the government said the study, by the China Railway Group, would finalise a long-awaited section of the planned Trans-Asia Railway covering 255 kilometres from near Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border.

The feasibility study put the final cost at between $500 million and $600 million, due primarily to the high number of bridges that would have to be built across the Mekong Delta and its many tributaries.

"Neither will want to go it alone at that price," one government source said, referring to the Cambodian and Chinese sides. "If it goes ahead, it will have to find additional funding, and given that it will benefit the entire region, it might find support from the [Asian Development Bank] or the World Bank."

According to the Preliminary Technical Study Report, the 1,000-metre bridge crossing of the Mekong River and 1,500-metre bridge over the Tonle Sap would be the big-ticket items with a combined $262 million. The government source said at least $120 million would also have to be spent on smaller bridges along the line.

The proposed line would connect to the existing railway linking Phnom Penh to the Thai border via a junction to be built at Bat Doeng, just outside the capital.

From there it would cross the Tonle Sap river and head east through Skon to the provincial city of Kampong Cham and across the Mekong River. It then would follow National Route 7 to Memot and Snoul before turning south east to link up with the Vietnamese rail network at Loc Ninh.

Touch Chankosal, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Public Works and Transports (MPWT), said a previously unpublished report had also valued the Bat Doeng-to-Snoul line at $600 million.

"We're undecided what the government will contribute; we need to see the final report and how much it says it will cost," he said. "The project will cost much."

The Cambodian government has divided the country's railway system in two. Australia's Toll Holdings will take control of old French-built lines in the east, which run from the capital to the Thai border and south to Sihanoukville, home of one of the largest ports in the Gulf of Siam.

Paul Power, an adviser to the Cambodian government and team leader for the ADB's involvement in the reconstruction of Cambodia's railways, said the economic benefit for the region and Cambodia would be enormous.

Regional centre
"It makes Cambodia the hub of transportation between China and Singapore, and you would have a port link, you would have a link to Thailand, you'll have a link through to Vietnam, and the implications for that, for Cambodia in the region, are that Cambodia becomes the hub."

He said freight would provide the greatest economic benefits, particularly for shipping bulk goods such as rice. However, the contractors first must deal with the thorny issue of resettling people living along the route.

In Cambodia, poor landholders often are pushed out with little compensation to make way for commercial developments, causing considerable public anger.

Power said the companies in the project are aware of the problems that have afflicted other construction projects, and he thinks they can avoid similar difficulties.

Touch Chankosal said other issues that need to be resolved include an agreement with Thailand over where the line will cross their shared border. A similar agreement was reached with Vietnam in 2007.

Border relations between the two countries have been strained recently following the dispute and military standoff over land surrounding the temple at Preah Vihear just inside Cambodia.

He added there were no plans as yet to extend the railway into Laos.

"The railway will help the economy a lot. It will reduce heavy transportation on the roads and facilitate trade exchange between neighbouring countries, and this will boost economic growth," he added.

If funding can be secured and resettlement and border issues resolved quickly, then authorities hope the construction of the final link between Singapore and China and beyond as far as London, could start within the next 18 months.

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