Cambodia's railway system is set to join the modern era

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Bamboo train
Image caption,
Cambodia's famous bamboo trains will not be safe once the country's tracks are upgraded

Eng Chamroeun is caught half-way between laughter and tears. As he talks, he thumps at his chest to emphasise the strength of his feelings - and gesticulates over his shoulder at the object that has inspired this outrush of emotion.

There it stands on the tracks, a vision in canary yellow, matching warning lights flashing front and rear. A self-powered, two-carriage commuter train.

Next to one of the doors a metal plate indicates that it was made in Germany in 1969 - but from the outside it looks as if it has just rolled out of the factory.

"I worked for the railway for so many years," says the 73-year-old former station master. "And over time I saw the business die and the trains disappear. Now I'm so happy that I can see them running again before I die."

In most other countries the object of Eng Chamroeun's affection would be utterly unremarkable - or even derided as out-of-date. But expectations are lower in Cambodia.

For many years the only passenger services which have run with any regularity on the country's battered and neglected network have been provided by the "bamboo railway". No safety inspector worthy of the name would ever allow them to take to the rails. But in rural provinces like Pursat, there has been nobody to stop them.

Operators simply slap a wooden or bamboo bed on top of two sets of wheels, hook up a small water-pump engine, and load their contraptions with as many passengers and goods as they can pile on. Then they zip along twisted tracks which have seen little maintenance since they were installed in the 1920s.

On the odd occasion that an official service comes through, the bamboo railway drivers are unfazed. They simply dismantle their conveyances, lift them off the rails and stand to one side as the "real" train rumbles by at little more than walking pace.


Leang Navy has been driving along the tracks in Pursat for almost 20 years. She sits on a pile of rice sacks next to the red-hot, noisy little motor and clutches a long wooden pole which acts as a brake.

"People use my service because of the lack of alternatives," she says. "It's convenient and affordable."

Some of her passengers voice their agreement. They range in age from a breast-feeding baby to an elderly, shaven-headed Buddhist nun. One woman insists the bamboo railway is better than a scheduled service because it departs on demand at any time of the day or night.

Image caption,
Banker Patu Kamayana says improving the railways is essential for Cambodia's competitiveness

But it is also running on borrowed time. While the line from Phnom Penh to Pursat is still in a terrible state, the stretch from the capital to the coast has finally been renovated.

Over the next couple of years the rest of the country's tracks will also be renewed, allowing trains to run at speeds of up to 80 kilometres an hour - too fast for the bamboo railway to continue to operate safely.

An Australian-Cambodian joint venture has been given the right to run the railway for the next 30 years. To start with Toll Royal Railway is concentrating on goods services, which may prove most profitable - for company and country alike.

"It will improve Cambodia's access to regional and global markets," says Putu Kamayana, the Asian Development Bank's director in Cambodia. His organisation has put up the bulk of the cash for the restoration of the railways.

"It will also improve the attractiveness of Cambodia as a destination for foreign direct investment, and improve its export competitiveness."

But the romance of the railway has proved irresistible for the Australians in charge of running the revived services. Chief Operating Officer John Guiry can barely contain his glee as he guides visitors around the engine sheds.

Among the buried treasure are ten steam locomotives, many complete with armour-plating and bullet holes - a testament to Cambodia's decades of conflict, when the trains and tracks were frequent targets for the fighting factions.

Congested roads

Now one has been fully restored, along with the former royal coach. Mr Guiry thinks it could be ideal for taking tourists on special trips.

There is no firm start date for passenger services, but the restored German commuter train which so delighted Eng Chamroeun will soon be joined by another.

Test journeys have pleased passengers who relaxed in the fan-cooled carriages as the train sped through the rice paddies - a sharp contrast to the increasingly congested main roads.

The big prize may be still to come. By the end of the decade, Cambodia's railway should be linked to the networks in Thailand and, for the first time, Vietnam. That would complete the long dreamed-of "iron silk road" linking Southeast Asia to Northern Europe.

Singapore to Scotland: if it happens it would surely rank as the ultimate great train journey.