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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Off the rails

Off the rails

Off the rails


One of the old steam engines doubles as a playground for children

Like a forgotten train set in a giant's attic lie French era steam engines and carriages

at Phnom Penh railway station.

Ten 50-year-old express steam locomotives are locked away in a shed in the railyards

- dusty and worn but undamaged, while in the bay next to them stands a magnificent

blue and white wooden carriage that was once reserved for the King or VIPs.

Outside the shed stands another legacy from the days of steam - an elegant swan-necked

water crane.

Railways department staff seem to have a real affection for the antiques among their

equipment - much the same as people who have grown too old for their toys but

could never bear to throw them out.

The locomotives are complete and have not been stripped of their copper and brass

fixtures and pipes, but the department has not replied to any of the offers to buy


One senior railways official said that they might be persuaded to sell one of them

if they were assured it was going to be looked after but otherwise they are staying


"Maybe we would sell one to an international museum but we would not sell them

for people to cut up," he said.

Cambodia stopped using its steam engines regularly about ten years ago when it became

impossible to go into the forests to get enough timber for fuel because of the Khmer


As each engine ceased service and was replaced by a diesel powered engine it was

parked up and left.

But their days of sitting idle might be over. Railways staff said that if they can

sort out regular water supplies along the lines they plan to put the steam engines

back in service to supplement the diesels that replaced them.

DAYS OF STEAM: a front view of a French Pacific Express engine.

On the day the Post visited the railyards one of the steam engines was being

DAYS OF STEAM: Ex-Steam engine driver Pen Saroeun sits in one of the old driver's cabs.


out and readied for a German film crew which had paid $1200 to take them to Takeo

and back.

The sight of the locomotive moving along the tracks stirred memories for engine

driver Pen Sarouen.

"I was responsible for this engine," he said as it trundled passed towed

by a diesel shunting engine.

"It was a lot of work but I loved it," he said quietly.

He said the mechanics of steam locomotives were much more straightforward than diesels

so he felt more in control.

"I liked it because I understood all the engine's problems."

Saroeun said that working with steam engines was not always pleasant but there was

some- thing special about it.

"It was hot, sometimes I felt sick because of the heat. It would take two hours

to set the fire and to put oil in it to make it run smoothly.

"Lots of burning cinders flew from the fire and stuck to my body and I was sweaty

and hot - but it was different from the other engines. It was a sculpture."

Meanwhile, as the railways department contemplates returning to 50 year old technology

to move their trains they are also looking forward.

Moves are underway to restore the rail link to Thailand via Poipet.

DAYS OF STEAM: a photograph from the July 1953 edition of Khmer

Illustrated Review, showing a pristine Pursat Station.

Cambodia railways staff said that a recent delegation from Thailand proposed financing

and restoring the link from Sisophon to Poipet to meet the Thai railhead at Aranyaprathet.

The Thais have also made a study of Cambodia's tracks. Their report said that to

upgrade the rail network to enable a reliable 60 kph service to be maintained would

cost close to $100 m. To upgrade the tracks for a 120 kph service would push the

total bill up to $300.

A railways official said that no decisions had been made on what remedial work would

be carried out.


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