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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs  23 October 2010

Railways return to Cambodia

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Development specialists have persuaded the Cambodian government to privatize the system, which reopened on Friday with one freight line between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas, near the Vietnamese border.

Eventually, they promise, a refurbished railroad will revive Cambodia's economy and drag it out of decades of poverty and chaos.

It would be an important missing link in a proposed regional rail system that would stretch from Singapore to Kunming, China.

"It's a powerful symbol of Cambodia's reconstruction," said Lachlan Pontifex, an aid expert with the Australian government, which is helping to fund the $141.6 million effort.

While an efficient transport network holds out great promise for Cambodian businesses, the reclaiming of railroad land could sink thousands into deeper poverty.

Many people who live and sell goods alongside the rails - often barely subsisting - fear they will be evicted from their homes.

Others, like the operators of makeshift carts that ferry people along the tracks, known as "bamboo trains," will lose a meager but reliable livelihood.

French colonial rulers laid the first rails across the rice paddies and wetlands in the 1920s.

By 1969, track stretched from the Thailand border to the capital Phnom Penh and continued southwest to Sihanoukville, on the Gulf of Thailand.

Then Cambodia plunged into chaos, beginning with a US-backed military coup and ending in the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime.

Stations crumbled, locomotives rusted and the system ground into dysfunction.

In the past dozen years, the country has seen a sputtering economic boom, which clogged the roads with people and goods.

But the railway was best avoided. A train ride between the capital and the provincial city Battambang, about 300 kilometers northwest, took more than a day, at a time when a taxi ride took less than four hours.

The Cambodian government shut the system down in November 2009 and awarded the Australian company Toll a 30-year joint venture contract to refurbish and operate it.

Toll received an $84 million loan from the Asian Development Bank and others.

Earlier this month, after $5 million in investments in new rails, signs, locomotive repairs and workforce training, the freight service to Touk Meas began operating ahead of Friday's inauguration.

The entire railroad - including new spurs directly to the ports - is to be operational by 2013.

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