Update 04 January 2013: Just got word that the cargo train is operating on a trial basis, but the passenger train will not be operational until later. You can read all about it HERE.
Update 30 December: It looks like there may be some passenger cars at the end of the train. Check out the still from a video a reader kindly provided a link to. You can watch the whole video, but it’s 15 minutes long and in Khmer.
This announcement almost got past me: Cambodia’s first commercial train begins operation appeared in the NZweek yesterday. It may not sound like exciting news, but it was exciting to me because a commercial train operating between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville is going to make an enormous difference in a number of ways.
Just last week I got into a discussion with an Otres Beach bar/restaurant owner who had the mistaken opinion that our barang-style tourism was the lifeblood of Sihanoukville. When I mentioned the 2 Special Economic Zones in the province, the expansion of the port facilities and the plans to start oil production in Cambodia in the near future, his initial retort was disappointing, if not surprising. “All they have is a garment industry,” he replied and went on to say, “I heard they didn’t have enough offshore oil to make drilling viable.” Neither of these things was true, but they are part of the local expat mythology.
We went on to talk about the lack of infrastructure. There’s no question about the lack of existing infrastructure, but improving it is in the works. The commercial train is an important part of that infrastructure that will enable the increasing numbers of goods coming into the Port of Sihanoukville and from Phnom Penh to be transported more cheaply and efficiently. Just one side benefit from this will be a reduction in dangerous traffic on National Highway 4. As Minister of Public Works and Transport Tram Iv Tek said:
the new railway will bring a range of benefits to Cambodia. “It will lower the cost of staple commodities that poor Cambodian families depend on,”he said.”Also, it will improve road safety by taking dangerous cargoes, such as the fuel trucks driving between the oil terminal in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, off the roads.*
Meanwhile in the tourism sector, visitors to Cambodia topped 2.8 million in the first 10 months of 2012 and many more are finding their way to Sihanoukville than in the past. Sihanoukville is having trouble coping with them all, but is responding with the construction of dozens of new hotels and guesthouses of all sizes. The Sihanoukville Airport, too, just got $200 million dollars for an upgrade.
Another person I spoke with recently was frustrated by Sihanoukville’s relatively slow growth. Why wasn’t the needed infrastructure already in place? Why wasn’t the airport fully operational? I didn’t think of it at the time, but later it dawned on me to ask him why he had started such a small business instead of a large resort? The fact that he started a business at all and was striving to make it profitable was good and he was using his available resources wisely, but a large resort was beyond his means to build and beyond his level of expertise to manage. Similarly, Sihanoukville’s growth is within its current means and ability to manage. You really can’t ask for more.
Anyway, Cambodia’s first commercial train is just one more link in a chain of events that are transforming this once sleepy village into a major commercial and tourist centre. It’s a fascinating place to be living in and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here to observe it all first-hand.
*quote taken from NZnews article cited in first sentence.