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Crunch time looming for railways

Crunch time looming for railways

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.

"If the

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.

The rail

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

that.

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

reports.

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

year.

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

route.

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.

Cambodia

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

Kompong Som.

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.

The Asian

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

Som port.

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

minor repairs.

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.

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