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Phnom Penh airport train vexes residents

Children walk on old railroad tracks now used for the capital’s new airport rail link on Thursday.
Children walk on old railroad tracks now used for the capital’s new airport rail link on Thursday.

Phnom Penh airport train vexes residents

The residents of Street 105K can hear the train before they see it – a low rumble, a blaring horn, an incessant whistle.

Motorists swerve out of the way, parting like a school of fish. Children scamper to the side. A railway employee, sitting on a plastic stool at the front of the train, blows furiously on a whistle, waving people out of the way with a walkie-talkie.

Residents in Por Senchey district’s Kakab commune have fought against this railroad ever since it was announced last year, some burning tyres in protest.

After halting the project temporarily, officials reopened construction. Now, two weeks after its official launch, residents say the Royal Railways train – which runs twice an hour, day and night, shuttling people between the airport and the city – is no more welcome.

“I have no words,” said one woman, a proprietor at a small mechanical shop, who declined to give her name. “We can’t seem to win over them. It runs 24 hours a day. It shakes the ground.”

As the train pulled into view, blaring its horn loudly, she glared. “We have protested since before they started this project,” she said. “Now that it’s already built, you want to interview me. Will it make a difference?”

Residents say they are woken at night. Shop owners say business is down. In addition, a city project to widen the road is still unfinished.

The result, residents say, is that bottlenecked motorcyclists often choose to drive directly over the tracks, getting their wheels stuck in the grooves beside the rails.

Twenty-seven-year-old hairdresser Lim Lina said she sees drivers getting stuck at least once a day, especially at night.

Before moving ahead with construction plans, authorities “didn’t invite or tell us about the meetings”, Lina said. “We don’t have rights . . . Now it’s affecting my business because it’s become very quiet. If it’s still like that after they finish construction, we may find another place.”

John Guiry, the CEO of Royal Railways Cambodia, acknowledged the disturbance the railway had caused residents but expressed confidence that they would adapt to the changes.

“A lot of it is just trying to get used to each other – the railway and the locals – and that’s it, really,” Guiry said.

According to Guiry, many of the problems with motorists should be resolved once the city finishes expanding the road, giving everybody more space to share. That project was supposed to be completed before the opening of the railway, but the city “just couldn’t keep up”, he said.

Guiry, who said he rides the train once a day, also acknowledged residents’ concerns about noise.

“That is an issue,” he said. “I’ve told the drivers personally, please lay off the whistle, lay off the horn. You’re not running down a main line.”

City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey could not be reached on Thursday. However, some residents say the road expansion – which has involved tearing up large portions of the street alongside storefronts – has caused further headaches.

Forty-eight-year-old food vendor Honn Ang Horn said her house’s plumbing and infrastructure has been damaged by the construction and that she now needs to hire workers to fix it.

“To avoid incidents, they keep expanding the road, and now it’s affecting the people,” said Ang Horn, who has lived on Street 105K since she was 8 years old. “They just gave this to the company but don’t take care of the people.”

Royal Railways, which has a 30-year concession to operate the country’s railroads, has a spotty safety record, with several derailings last year and several instances of trains striking vehicles and people on the tracks, sometimes fatally.

Guiry, however, said safety is a top concern for the company. “We gotta make sure that whatever we do is safe,” he said. “Number 1 is safety, and everything else comes second. That’s why we slowed the train down, told the drivers to go no more than 20 kilometres per hour.”

But some parents around the new line still say they are worried about the additional hazard the train poses to children.

Kann Putra, an administrator at a private preschool just a few metres from the tracks, said she asked school guards to begin walking children home.

“Why, on just a small road, do they bring in a train like that?” Putra asked. “People around here are not happy with it – but let’s wait and see.”

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