For me, the sight that most encapsulated the rebirth of passenger services in Cambodia was the two young children, travelling on a train for the very first time, accompanied by their grandfather or great-grandfather. The looks of awe and excitement on their faces make all the hard work of the team at Royal Railway more than worthwhile.
But then again, that awe and excitement was also on the faces of many of the adult Khmers too. Once we had boarded the train at Phnom Penh , including my scooter in the freight car, my partner, at 37, had that same ‘Xmas morning’ look as those two young children.
While there have been intermittent services over the last few decades, the reality is that it has been 40 years since regular and reliable trains have run here. Before this year, the last passenger train to run was the Phnom Penh to Battambang service, which experienced frequent derailments, in 2009.
To many observers here, the reality of passenger trains returning here seemed a distant hope, and few expected any sort of service before the end of the decade. But Royal Railway, with a 30 year concession to operate the Cambodian Railway Network, has surprised everyone, relaunching the southern railway line passenger services in April 2016. In addition to coaches, there are flatbed cars on which you can load your vehicle for a very small price.
For those of us who have regularly travelled between the capital and Kampot or Sihanoukville, we’ve all experienced those ‘life flashing before you’ white-knuckle moments as the minivan driver overtakes a truck while another lorry hurtles towards you at breakneck speed. We’ve all closed our eyes and offered silent prayers to multiple deities as we see a dog/buffalo/child on bike come rushing onto the road with no awareness of the busy traffic ahead. And we’ve all stretched our legs wearily at some ambiguous halfway point and breathed in the wonderful dust clouds created by passing trucks.
It may only have been operating for 6 months but in that time the service has already improved dramatically. While the schedule still advises that Sihanoukville is a 7 hour journey, the reality is that due to better average speeds now, the train often arrives earlier. Kampot is only around 4 hours’ journey by train which is very comparable to the same trip by road.
Inside the carriages are comfortable enough – and this will also improve as new rolling stock arrives and refurbishments continue – and the passenger areas are air conditioned too so are nice and cool for those expat and tourist sensibilities. Staff have refreshments for sale, and when you reach the first station (Takeo) there are vendors with everything from a hot meal to a toothbrush.
For safety reasons – something that is high on Royal Railway’s priority list – the train goes fairly slow as it leaves Phnom Penh. Many people still live beside the tracks and still haven’t lost their curiosity and excitement even after 6 months. Adults smile, children wave, and tourists get a little glimpse of a side of Phnom Penh they might normally miss.
Once we escape the city the locomotive picks up speed – these days they can get to 65km/h on some stretches; hardly world record levels but given they were only managing around half of that when they started, it is testament to the hard work put in by Royal Railway in improving the tracks and the rolling stock while still prioritising safety. But for me the main highlight – other than the avoidance of road travel – is the chance to kick back and watch the stunning Cambodian countryside as you meander along at a relaxing but steady pace.
We arrived in Kampot on schedule – and that was despite a slight delay in leaving due to adding on an extra freight car to accommodate passengers who turned up with motos but no moto tickets.
With services on the Northern Line (Phnom Penh to Poipet) due to start sometime in the next 12 months, the railway network in Cambodia is truly back on track