Around 8am on Tuesday morning, a bell rang a few times at the Phnom Penh train station signalling to passengers that the first publicly available airport train in the capital was about to depart.
About 50 passengers lined up and boarded the carriage – actually the second to leave that morning. The first was filled with government and Royal Railway officials, including Transport Minister Sun Chanthol, who oversaw the railroad’s opening earlier in the morning.
The airport shuttle is set to run every 20 to 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, and will be free until the end of July, Chanthol said in his opening speech.
It is the latest public transportation development in Cambodia, closely following the launches of a ferry service in the capital on Friday and a train service running from the border town of Poipet to Serei Saphoan in Banteay Meanchey province on Wednesday, as well as a steady expansion of Phnom Penh’s public bus system.
Chanthol said during the opening ceremony that the rail line was entirely Cambodian-made, and that every Cambodian should be proud of it.
“This is one hundred percent constructed by our Cambodian people,” he said. “This must be our national pride.”
Royal Railway, the operating company, is part of the Royal Group conglomerate, owned by the powerful and politically connected tycoon Kith Meng. His company plans to begin charging for the train service after July 31.
The train’s carriages are clean, with air conditioning, TV and well-stocked bathrooms. Passengers on Tuesday gazed out the windows and took selfies to capture the novelty in perpetuity.
About 10 minutes into the 45-minute ride to the airport, houses began to appear on the side of the track, some of whose roofs almost appeared to touch the moving train. Groups of children could be seen playing, running and jumping just a few metres from the open tracks.
Royal Railway trains that travel between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville have been involved in numerous accidents involving people and vehicles on the tracks – some of them fatal – since that line was opened. Royal Railway officials yesterday declined to take questions from a reporter.
Royal Railway says it plans to receive three new trains from Mexico in June, trains that will have 2,400-horsepower engines and cruising speeds of 80 kilometres per hour. The new trains are set to have WiFi, TVs and a video intercom system, according to a press release.
After 45 minutes, the train slowed to a stop at the airport and the passengers disembarked, standing just a short walk from the departure gates.
As the passengers filed out, tired-looking travellers rolling luggage began to approach, perhaps unwittingly about to become some of the train’s first customers to ride the shuttle into the city.
“The train makes it very convenient, because you don’t have to worry about traffic,” said Lee Campbell, a US citizen who works in Cambodia, after he boarded the carriage headed back into the city. “It takes about 45 minutes from the airport to the city centre. If we took a taxi or tuk-tuk, it could be an hour-plus.”
As for those taxis and tuk-tuks, feelings about the new locomotive appeared mixed.
A taxi driver who declined to give his name said he would have to work harder to keep customers now that the train was running.
“I will face a new competition, but I hope it will not be a serious issue,” he said yesterday.
Oun Vichet, a tuk-tuk driver who normally works near the airport’s gate, was initially negative about the train opening, noting he’d likely lose customers. But, perhaps feeling some of the national pride that the transport minister said he should, he appeared to come around to the change.
“If everyone is happy with this train, I think I should be happy too,” he said. “There are many other places that I can earn money.”