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Regional rail network

The 48-kilometer stretch between Sisophon and Poipet in the north-west of Cambodia

will be among the first of the "missing links" to be tackled in the development

of an ambitious new rail link that will run from Kunming in China to Singapore.

The Poipet section, budgeted at $55 million, will connect Phnom Penh with Thailand,

Malaysia and Singapore after Thailand completes the final 500 meters of their Bangkok-Poipet

track that was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years.

However, experts said that fixing the country's missing links could prove a Herculean

task, for both technical and financial reasons. The first problem will be to clear

the Poipet-Sisophon section of landmines.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimated that a further $200 million would be required

just to build the other missing link, 225 kilometers of new track to join Phnom Penh

and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. When finished, trains will be able to run to China.

Interest in the project was revived during the recent Asean summit in Brunei, when

ministers said they had made the Singapore-Kunming rail link a priority.

Thai Foreign Minister Sura-kiart Sathirathai told a local newspaper that Asean's

leaders had agreed the missing links should be tackled first. The project was revived

in 1994 - after a break of around a century - and Cambodia was included in 1999.

Malaysia completed a feasibility study last year, but the project has suffered from

a lack of funding.

An independent assessment by Halcrow Consultants stated that the $1.8 billion project

would have very low economic viability, but member countries are counting on long-term

benefits from increased trade and tourism. Ultimately it would connect with Europe

through the trans-Siberian railway, provided gaps in China and Vietnam can be built.

Before Cambodia's new lines can be laid, the Kingdom will have to upgrade its dilapidated

railway system that is virtually falling apart. The country's railway comprises two

spans connecting Phnom Penh with Sihanoukville in the south and via Battambang to

Sisophon in the north-west.

The 263 kilometer long southern line was opened in 1969; the 385 kilometer northern

stretch was built between 1929-43. Experts said a lack of maintenance and rehabilitation

during past decades had taken a further toll on both infrastructure and rolling stock.

ADB deputy head Anthony J Jude said the condition of the Cambodia's railway network

could be gauged from the fact that the goods train move at a maximum speed of only

15kph and wagons could carry a maximum 15 tons of cargo.

"It's because the tracks, engines, signals, bridges, etc, are in an extremely

run down condition and need to be urgently rehabilitated just to double the train

speed and the weight carrying capacity," he said. To do that could cost another

$200 million.

Until recently, government and funding agencies were skeptical about the project

due to its high costs. The ADB, the main provider of infrastructure in the region,

provides annual assistance of $80-$100 million for all sectors. Another $60-$70 million

is given by the World Bank. Neither organization has identified railroads as a priority

for another few years.

Jude said that as a part of the project to upgrade infrastructure in the Greater

Mekong Sub-region, ADB planned to rehabilitate the Kingdom's existing railway network

during 2003-2004, provided other funders contribute. The government is confident

funds will be found from donors and other regional states.

"Asean has asked China, South Korea and Japan to contribute to the cost of the

railroad," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Chem Widhya said . "The

Asean ministers of transport are scheduled to meet in Beijing in March 2002 for discussion

on how they can help Cambodia in building the railroad."

Experts agreed that Cambodia would benefit from a tourism and trade boost once the

network was completed.

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