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A road of iron needing nerves of steel

A road of iron needing nerves of steel

A trolleyload of people and produce, left, on Duos Saroeun's makeshift

"raildop" between Takeo and Tani

"COWS can be a problem," admits Duos Saroeun as he scrutinizes the stretch

of railway track ahead of him. "If a cow wanders onto the rails and I can't

stop in time, a collision occurs."

In Saroeun's line of work, vagaries as diverse as trainspotting bovines or unexpected

changes in the daily rail schedule pose threats to business - and to life and limb.

Saroeun is one of Cambodia's "raildop" drivers, an innovative breed of

entrepreneur exploiting Cambodia's intermittent rail service and public dissatisfaction

with the Kingdom's rutted roads to create for themselves a distinctive business niche.

Five years ago, Saroeun noticed how enterprising Sihanoukville businessmen had derived

opportunity from scarcity by placing motor-powered wooden platforms on virtually

unused stretches of railway track. The result was a hybrid form of taxi for communities

ill-served by the Kingdom's chronically shambolic public transportation network.

Saroeun returned to his native Takeo inspired. Within weeks he too had slapped a

platform of wooden planks onto a pair of train wheels, slipped his motorcycle into

a custom-cut slot and became his area's first raildop.

Hopping forward while simultaneously pulling up his shirt and rolling up one leg of his trousers, a rival driver displays graphic evidence of the effects of a night collision between two raildops.

From those humble beginnings, Saroeun has built a successful business ferrying freight,

passengers and livestock along the 20 kilometers of track between Takeo and Tani.

In the sincerest form of flattery, at least nine other raildop entrepreneurs have

set up shop alongside him.

"Public transportation in Cambodia is so poor," Saroeun said of the motivation

behind his raildop venture. "There are lots of places where roads don't go,

but train tracks do."

Saroeun would like to chat longer, but a crowd has gathered by the tracks near his

now-inert raildop platform. The daily southbound train has already passed and it's

time for work.

In a jiffy, Saroeun and his two assistants have heaved a pair of heavy iron wheels

onto the track. "Custom-made," Saroeun says proudly. "They cost me

one million riel, but they're much better than regular train wheels."

Next comes the square wooden platform, looking suspiciously like a door liberated

from an unattended railway shed.

Finally, Saroeun and his assistants lift his motorcycle - complete with insignia

identifying it as belonging to the Taipei County Police Department - into its slot

in the platform.

"You see?" Saroeun asks. "The [motorcycle's] back wheel fits perfectly

on the rail."

Within minutes, the wooden platform is alive with people and goods. Children and

grandmothers elbow for positions among an eclectic collection of scrap metal, bags

of flour, bananas, bicycles and a solitary squealing piglet.

"It's 2000 riel to go all the way to Tani," Saroeun said of his fare structure.

"In a normal day, working from 6:00am, I can do between five and six trips."

Perched precariously on the back of the platform, Tos Vuthy is on his way to school.

"[The raildop] only costs 500 riel to get there," Vuthy said. "This

way is faster and smoother than riding my bicycle."

A question to the crowd of passengers about the possible dangers of raildop travel

evokes a shout of agreement from a nearby rival raildop driver.

Hopping forward while simultaneously pulling up his shirt and rolling up one leg

of his trousers, the driver displays graphic evidence of the effects of a recent

night collision with another raildop.

"It was dark and I had no time to stop," he told the small crowd that had

gathered to peer at his wounds. "I love this business, it's a good business,

but when collisions occur it's not good: I have to pay compensation to any victims."

Saroeun, however, is quick to try to soothe any doubts his rival's injuries might

raise about the safety of raildop commuting.

"We have a good relationship with the stationmaster of Takeo railway station,"

Saroeun said. "He lets us know about any approaching trains or schedule changes."

In return, Saroeun pays the stationmaster 1000 riel a day, along with "tolls"

paid out to equally enterprising police posts along his route.

"We can't do business so freely on the railway tracks," Saroeun said with

a sigh. "The Railway thinks the tracks belong to them."

Over at Takeo railway station, Stationmaster Aum Sithan looks genuinely hurt at the

suggestion that he accepts payoffs in exchange for turning a blind eye to the booming

raildop industry operating just meters from his office.

"We don't take money from them," Sithan insists. "We try to tell them

not to do business on the railway, but they don't listen."

Sithan claims that the risks run by raildop drivers and their passengers are not

to be taken lightly, particularly since there are neither radio nor telephone links

between stations.

"Train schedules are very irregular; sometimes during the day, sometimes at

night," he said. "There was almost a serious accident last year [between

a raildop and a train] but the train braked in time for [the raildop] to get off

the tracks."

In spite of his assertions regarding the danger inherent in raildop travel, Sithan

freely concedes that their popularity will continue.

"[Raildops] are still safer and more comfortable than traveling by road."

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