By Puy Kea
PHNOM PENH, Oct. 22, Kyodo - The first segment of a new international standard railroad opened in Cambodia on Friday, a major step towards the creation of a long-awaited Pan-Asian railroad.
While passengers have to wait for the next step, freight rail service has begun along a 120-kilometer stretch of rail between Phnom Penh and Cambodia's Touk Meas in southern Kampot Province near the border with Vietnam.
Rail links were introduced in Cambodia in the 1920s during French colonial rule with lines linking the capital to the northern border with Thailand and Sihanoukville in the south, but construction of the links was only completed in 1942 and 1969, respectively.
Then, decades of conflict left Cambodia's railroads in serious disrepair, rail traffic declining and the poor condition of the tracks led to frequent derailments.
And until Friday, no trains had run in the country for more than a year.
Still, only 120 km of the 650 km of track from Poipet near the border with Thailand to Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville is ready.
And 48 km of track heading to Poipet which were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge will be reconstructed and to be fully linked to other part of the country by 2012.
The Asian Development Bank is providing $84 million in loans for the reconstruction and repair of the 650 km of track in the country.
Australia is providing an additional $21.5 million in loan in support of the $141 million project to be run by Toll Holdings, an Australian company.
Cambodia is putting up $20.3 million.
''We are on the cusp of a contiguous 'Iron Silk Road' stretching from Singapore to Scotland,'' Kunio Senga, director general of the ADB's Southeast Asia Department, said. ''This possibility has been talked about for decades, but today the dream has finally taken a big step toward becoming reality.''
The new railway will help lower the cost of staple commodities that Cambodian families rely upon.
''This new railroad represents another important step for Cambodia in overcoming its legacy of conflict,'' Senga added. ''With better infrastructure and closer economic ties with its neighbors, Cambodia's people are enjoying a peace dividend more than ever before.''
Once Cambodia's railroad is finished, only a link between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam will remain before a pan-Asian railway is complete.
Cambodia and Vietnam have already signed an agreement to link their railways, and China is supporting a design study on a rail link from Phnom Penh to Loc Ninh in Vietnam.
The railway rehabilitation project is a vital component of the Greater Mekong Subregion's southern economic corridor linking Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and is a key component of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Singapore-Kunming Rail Link Project.
Toll Holdings has been awarded a 30-year contract to operate and maintain the rehabilitated railway system.
Wayne Hunt, CEO and President of Toll’s Global Logistics Division which operates the railway said, “Today marks a very important milestone in the ongoing development of Cambodia. With the launch of an operational rail freight service between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas, cargo can be transported more easily around this area while also reducing vehicle congestion and truck over-loading on the roads”.
“This line is set to provide a valuable link to businesses throughout Cambodia, as well as linking up the country with the rest of South East Asia. Toll is particularly proud to be part of such an exciting time in Cambodia’s development, and will continue to work with the Cambodian government to support their commitment to road to rail transportation,” he said.
Wayne Hunt added the train service will help save between 10 and 20 percent of truck transport costs and will help ease traffic congestion.
Echoing at the official launch,David Kerr, CEO of Toll Royal Railway commented, “Toll Royal Railway is committed to the people of Cambodia, and we have so far employed over 150 staff. We hope to add to this as the business grows, giving opportunities for local people to develop their careers with an international company.”
“As an employer of choice in the region, we greatly value our staff, their families and communities, and take our role as a corporate citizen very seriously,” he said.
Referring to the section opened Friday, Hunt said 50 out of 330 cars and eight out of 15 locomotives are in place and are operational, while two are reserved for passenger traffic to begin in the near future. The rest are for freight.
Cement and oil are initially at least to be main products shipped from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh.
According to plans, the entire 650-kilometer railway system is to be operational in 2012, making Cambodia a vital part of regional rail transport.