T RAINS remain the most dangerous form of transport in Cambodia - and foreign aid
could be the next casualty.
Attempts to rebuild the country's raggedy
railway system are jeopardized - as well as train crews and passengers - by
continuing Khmer Rouge attacks.
"We can't keep helping to build a bridge
if it is destroyed one or two months later; it's useless for us to do so," says
Serge Henneville, a French railway engineer in Cambodia.
situation still goes on, our government will stop assisting in this field. I
think the [Cambodian] government has to maintain security if they want to
improve their own railway."
Henneville - working on an 18 million Franc
aid project to restore old trains and tracks in Cambodia -says the country's
railway system is the poorest in the region.
While such aid is clearly
vital - and is also given by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank
- the benefits can be literally ripped away at any time.
system has long been a favorite target of the KR. Mines laid on tracks,
explosives on bridges and guerrilla assaults on trains regularly cause
destruction and death.
"Nearly every day, we get reports that lines are
cut off. We are tired of repairing them," says Pich Kimsreang, director of the
government railway company.
The KR, he says, has a slogan - "Cut the
railway into pieces" - and it does a fairly good job of trying to do
A total of 327 pieces of railway track, along with 12 bridges, have
been blown up this year, as of early July, according to company
On one day alone - June 14 - 53 places were mined and one bridge
destroyed along the Phnom Penh-Battambang-Sisophon line.
That route is
the worst for railway damage. Trains from Phnom Penh to Battambang are supposed
to run every day - but the trip has only been completed three times this
Pich Kimsreang believes it is up to the government to provide
railway security throughout the country, because provincial authorities say they
do not have enough soldiers to do so.
Some 800-1000 provincial soldiers
are said to be positioned along Cambodia's railways but they - and other rogue
troops - can themselves be a threat.
Reth Boeun, chief of the railway
company's services department, says Royal army soldiers sometimes stand on the
tracks with rifles and grenade launchers to stop trains.
They ask for
money, batteries, shoes, cigarettes, radios or simply free passage for
themselves or their goods.
"It is anarchy... They think it is no problem
to stop a train and ask whatever they want."
Then there are
semi-permanent illegal army checkpoints, where money or goods are demanded from
passengers, including at least 10 on the Phnom Penh-Battambang
It's little surprise that train travel is reserved for the poor.
Railway officials say most Cambodians are scared to use trains and, if they can,
take more expensive taxis or buses.
Today's railway system is a far cry
from the hey day of the 1960s, when 25-30 trains carried a total of two million
people a year, according to Boeun.
Now, the railway company has 10 French
locomotives dating back to the 1960s, four Czech ones bought a few years ago,
and five shunting locomotives. All but two them have war damage.
has 600kms of railway. There are two lines - one from Phnom Penh to Battambang
and Sisophon, and the other from Phnom Penh through Takeo, Kampot and on to
In the long-term, it is hoped to connect the Sisophon line
with Thailand and build an off-shoot from the Kompong Som line to Vietnam -
creating a new Orient Express-type tourist service.
In the meantime, it's
a hard job just keeping the existing system running.
Development Bank has pledged $4 million, and the World Bank $700,000, for
restoring stations, tracks, locomotives and wagons.
Meanwhile, at the
Phnom Penh railway station, Khmer engineers work under supervision to renovate
locomotives, as part of the French aid project.
Serge Henneville says the
priority is to improve the line to and from the economically-important Kompong
As well as security, poor management and staff morale is
another problem, he says.
Most railway employees are unwilling to work
hard because their salaries are low.
The railway company earns about
150-200 million riels a year, 120 million of which goes toward staff wages and
Mea Sopat, who has worked at the Phnom Penh railway
workshops since the 1960s, says workers get 40,000-50,000 riels ($17 to 20) per
month. That is not barely enough to feed themselves breakfast, he says.