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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Donor funds may boost ASEAN railroad links

Donor funds may boost ASEAN railroad links


The construction of a "missing link" in the railroad connecting Singapore

to Phnom Penh may be finished through a pledge from Malaysia to fund repairs for

the railway between Sisophon and Poipet on the Thai border.

Cambodia's rail road network in need of a complete overhaul.

Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh said Malaysia had pledged $16.5 million and 106

kilometers of used tracks and additional equipment for the project during an August

19, 2003 speech at an ASEAN meeting in China. The Malaysian Embassy said it had not

yet confirmed funding from the country's Ministry of Transport.

If the route is completed, it will be a major step toward completing a direct rail

link between Singapore and the southern Chinese city of Kunming. Refurbishing the

route has been part of the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) Greater Mekong Subregion

Development plan since 1997.

Sokhom Pheakavanmony, general director of the Royal Cambodian Railway, was confident

that Malaysia could begin rebuilding the stretch of railway in Banteay Meanchey province

by late 2004.

"Repairs on the 48 kilometer stretch will start in 2004 and finish in 2005,"

he said. "At this stage, Malaysia is considering paying for it. The problem

is that the railroads we need to build in Cambodia are longer than in other countries

and we have no money to do it ourselves."

Before any tracks are laid, Cambodia must remove landmines, resettle residents near

the unused tracks and stop private lorries from using the railroad.

Director of railway construction Ly Borin said it would take at least nine months

to achieve these goals. He was confident that Malaysia would be able to start work

later this year.

"We will start to remove the residents and demine the area from January to September

of 2004," he said. "[Malaysia] will be able to begin work in September."

Director-general of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport Chhin Kong Hean said

the Malaysian pledge was a good first step. Along with the Sisophon-Poipet link,

the project also requires the construction of around 250 kilometers of new track

from Phnom Penh to Loc Ninh in Vietnam, which would then lead to Ho Chi Minh City

and China.

Hean also added that the entire section of the northern line from Sisophon to Phnom

Penh needed to be repaired if Cambodia hoped to match the speed and load capacity

of other countries' rail networks. He estimated that trains in Cambodia could travel

around 20 to 30 kilometers per hour and repairs might increase that to 60 kilometers

per hour.

"Compared to the other railway lines in Thailand and Singapore where they can

travel at around 80 kilometers per hour, Cambodia's tracks need a lot of improvement,"

he said. "At a cost of approximately $1 million per kilometer of track, we need

a lot of money to do it."

For the international railroad to be viable, the ADB said there needs to be common

standards across the ASEAN region. That is unrealistic at present, said Hean.

According to the Office of the Council of Ministers, the northern line has strict

speed and weight limits inadequate for the transit of shipping containers across

the region. The northern line has not been overhauled since its construction between

1929 and1942.

A 1997 study by the Ministry of Commerce also found that the southern line to Sihanoukville,

regarded as Cambodia's best, was found to be deformed and would require replacement

of 70 percent of its railway sleepers, support beams for the tracks.

But there are still high hopes for the ASEAN project.

Prasidh said the proposed economic benefits of the Asian rail link would be "beyond

the assessments of any expert". He called the rail link "a kind of second

Mekong river which goods from China could flow down".

Yet gaps between the quality of railway networks of ASEAN nations on the proposed

route means a functioning railway system is a long way off. Some feel the creation

and maintenance of a suitable railroad in Cambodia is economically questionable.

The ADB estimated that Cambodia would need at least $550 million to remedy their

rail woes, $270 million of which will be needed for the new rail link to Ho Chi Minh

City. However, concrete bilateral or multilateral donors have yet to commit funds.

Hean said the ADB is considering $40 to $50 million dollars in loans to repair the

northern line by 2005.

The ADB recently approved a $500,000 grant to build 168 kilometers of railway in

the Yunnan province in China. ADB project specialist Manmohan Parkash said that would

eventually connect Kunming with the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) railway.

"With Yunnan province also a part of the GMS the project is expected to help

promote regional cooperation among the countries," he said. Prakash added that

the project would lead to new jobs during construction, increased tourism and a decrease

in the price for goods and services due to decreased transportation costs.



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