Your August 20 coverage of the Mekong railway project, which included a front-page picture, an opinion column and report leave a lot to be desired. First, the opinion piece by Steve Finch lays the blame for not finishing the project solely on Cambodia, which is quite unfair considering Vietnam is also required to build new tracks. Furthermore, the huge US$1.09 billion cost of the new line, more than half of which comes from the need to construct two very expensive bridges, including one over the Mekong, is not something Cambodia could tackle on its own.
Also, the map accompanying the article is embarrassingly incomplete. At the least, it should show the line between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville that is now being rehabilitated and is nearing completion. Further, there are tracks between Battambang and Sisophon, and the right-of-way still exists between the latter and the Thai border at Poipet. That part is in the pipeline for rehab.
Finally, the map should show the proposed route for the line connecting Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. If it did, it would be clear why the cost is so high. That new line starts just north of the capital, heads east and a bit north to Kampong Cham, then east all the way to Snoul, where it then makes a sharp right turn and heads south to connect with a short line in Vietnam, which should also be on the map, which comes due north from Ho Chi Minh City.
The connection between the two major cities would be much faster and shorter if it were routed generally along Highway 1. In that case, Vietnam would be responsible for close to half the cost. The present, less-desirable routing places about 95 percent of the cost onto Cambodia, which is much less capable of shouldering the burden. The only compensating factor in running the route through Kampong Cham is that it’s Cambodia’s most heavily populated province. That route also gives the country a head start on running a line to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s most important tourist destination. The system will never be complete without connecting Siem Riep.
One thing Steve Finch got right is that the completed Mekong railway would be a great asset for the region. Meanwhile, to actually do it right the trains should be electrified, since that is by far the cheapest, most efficient and ecological way to power trains.
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