There are now many exciting ways to travel around Cambodia. Car and motorcycle ownership has grown exponentially, there are many coach and minibus services operating, and even domestic flights are available. One major form of transport has perhaps been overlooked – the train.
The Kingdom’s railways are safe and inexpensive, and their use has accelerated since services resumed in April before Khmer New Year.
On a typical day, at least 80 to 100 people take the train, while on weekends and holidays, up to 1,000 passengers ride the rails.
Sak Vanny, manager of passenger operations for Royal Railway Cambodia, said train services were suspended from March 2021 until March this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said that since reopening, the number of passengers had steadily increased by around 30-40 per cent. Each passenger train, with between 19 and 20 carriages, can accommodate from 1,100 to 1,200 passengers.
Vanny said tickets on the Sihanoukville line begin at just $6 for a ticket to Takeo, and rise to $10 if you want to go to the end of the line.
The Poipet line passes through Pursat and Battambang, with a similar pricing structure.
Sitting by a carriage window admiring the station before setting off for Battambang, 70 year-old Chin Moeun recalled how he often took the train as a young man.
He said he used what was then called Autorail, back in the Sangkum Reastr Niyum – Popular Socialist Community – era from 1955 to 1960. He had travelled this way once or twice in the 1980s, but this was his first time returning to the railway since then.
He was trying it out of mainly out of curiosity, although he mentioned that he had concerns about travelling by taxi, or even self-driving, due to the rising cost of fuel.
The tall, thin Moeun said the prices were reasonable and the staff were friendly and polite.
“The price is acceptable. As an old man, taking the train offers space, and there are beautiful views of the countryside. You get to see the mountains and the forests, and you arrive feeling refreshed,” he said.
Sin Daravuth, a 60-year-old resident of Battambang province, said that taking the train was safer than driving a car on the national roads, due to the risk of accidents. The train’s carriages provided spacious seating, and the locomotive made good time, he added.
Poul Kandom, who was travelling to Battambang province’s Banan district, said that he chose to take the train because the national road was still under construction, and he had heard the carriages were air-conditioned.
Meanwhile, Khieu Phannavy, a resident of Pursat province, said that she likes to travel by train because of the safety and the regular time tables. The bathrooms were very clean, she added, saying hygiene was very important to her.
She added that another convenient aspect of the train was the opportunity to chat with fellow passengers.
Mam Sethak, a 50-year-old woman who was heading to Kep province from Phnom Penh, told The Post that she used to take the train when she was a child. She felt travelling by train was more economical and safer than taking the bus.
“I took the train today to check out the experience. When my children come to visit me in the future I think they will take the train instead of being cramped in a bus. I have many kids, so I think this will be better for them,” she said.
Nak Ren, a man in his 30s wearing white glasses, said he liked to travel around the country but usually took buses. He was on his way to Kampot.
He some concerns because he had never used the train before. He was particularly concerned that the train might break down along the way.
“This train is not as modern as the ones found in developed countries. I worry that if it does break down, our arrival could end up being delayed by many hours. I hope everything goes well today, and I guess breakdowns only happen every once in a while,” he said.
Responding to this concern, Vanny of Royal Railway Cambodia confirmed that naturally breakdowns could occur, but the same could be said of cars and buses, and they were very rare.
If a train was to have a mechanical failure, our engineers would fix it as quickly as possible, while the company communicated details of the delay to our customers, she said.
“The risks are always there of course, just as they are for any vehicle. If we have a breakdown, we will get it repaired as quickly as possible. If one is available, we will switch the locomotive with another and continue the journey. If neither repairs nor a replacement locomotive are feasible options, we will hire buses so the passengers make it to their destinations,” she added.
The Cambodian rail network consists of two lines. The northern railway was built from 1929 to 1942, and runs 386km from Phnom Penh to Poipet town and the Thai border.
The southern railway, from the capital to Sihanoukville, was built between 1960 and 1969, and has a length of 264km.
Destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, the lines were repaired through the cooperation of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and Royal Railway Cambodia.
At the April inauguration ceremony of 38 roads and infrastructure projects in Siem Reap, Prime Minister Hun Sen urged the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to consider finding a partner to develop modern high-speed rail. He considered the current rail network too slow to respond the Kingdom’s future socio-economic development.
The Prime Minister said travel on the railway infrastructure system on both lines, was only possible at 20-30km per hour, which was not fast enough to connect with the networks of the Kingdom’s neighbours.
Public works ministry spokesman Vasim Sorya said that no new updates were available regarding the modernisation of the rail network.
However, Senior Minister Sun Chanthol, the Minister of Public Works and Transport has been making enquiries with private companies and studying the possibility of upgrading the existing network, or even building a new one.