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Passenger trains back on track

John Guiry, CEO of Royal Railway, talks to the Post last week at his office in Phnom Penh.
John Guiry, CEO of Royal Railway, talks to the Post last week at his office in Phnom Penh. Athena Zelandonii

Passenger trains back on track

Cambodia’s passenger rail service resumed Saturday on a trial basis after a 14-year absence. Trains are carrying passengers between Phnom and Sihanoukville during the nine-day trial period. The Post’s Kali Kotoski sat down with John Guiry CEO of Royal Railway, which holds a 30-year concession to operate the Kingdom’s railway network, to discuss what the company will be watching for during this trial run.

It has been over a decade since the railway operated a passenger line. What does Royal Railway hope to accomplish during the nine-day trial period?

What we want to do is provide a service for the Cambodian people over the holiday and to gauge how much support there is for a passenger service.

And I can say that since we started selling tickets last week, we were almost fully booked leaving from Phnom Penh. The returns from Sihanoukville are a bit quiet, but overall we are very surprised.

We learned that a lot of people are very keen to try the service and we hope they come back. The thing about the train is you get to see a part of Cambodia you don’t get to see from the road.

What are your operation plans after the Khmer New Year trial period?

The service will be immediately available for event hire and we will look at operating over the next big holiday. For us, the passenger service is still a bit of a learning curve.

Are there any plans for offering an overnight service?

We don’t have any plans for sleeper cars at the moment, but I have drafted a design where we could outfit the trains easily. It is just as easy as partitioning the rooms and rigging up the plumbing.

What other potential services could the passenger train accommodate?

We have about another five or six carriages that are earmarked for passenger travel once we conclude our review period. One thing we could do is offer a box car for transporting motorbikes down to Sihanoukville. There has also been a fair amount of interest with tourism companies that want to include the train in a packaged service. And I have also been talking with tourism companies in Sihanoukville to possibly operate a lunch-time tour for passengers coming off of cruise ships.

How do you expect the train to compete with road travel?

This is not about trying to beat the road or buses. We figured that we would have a bit of fun and we know that the rail line only covers a small part of the country. With most Cambodians going to their homeland for the holidays, if it is on the train route they may take it.

What are the plans for completing the Northern Line, and how much funding is necessary?

The Cambodian and Thai government have agreed that they will try to have it completed by December of this year. It is a big project and there could be some delays, but if all goes according to plan it would be done by December. I don’t know how far along it is, but I know they have started a lot of work by the Thai border. There is still a number of tracks that need to be built, rehabilitated and moved.

The Cambodian government is funding this, but they won’t tell me how much they are spending on it and I don’t ask. I think everyone is pushing for it because it is an opportunity for both countries. It all comes down to economics and we need to reduce the cost of freight to make Cambodia competitive.

Is there any potential to connect to other railway networks in the region?

Once the Northern Line is operational, it will connect with the Thai railway. There is 46 kilometres of brand new track waiting to be hooked up. The groundwork is being laid as we speak. When it is all connected it will create a regional network.

What is the commercial viability of the railway?

Our revenue target is to break even, but we have a long way to go. There have been a lot of start-up costs and our current revenue pays for track maintenance, wages, electricity and, most importantly, fuel. But we are still a long way off to being profitable.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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