Monday, 16 July 2012

Bamboo Train - The Ultimate Transportation in Battambang, Cambodia

I have talked before about the Bamboo train which is one of the highlights of any visit to Battambang and virtually every guest at Bambu goes on it at least once. When I first came here in 2006 I was told that I was lucky as I was just in time to catch one of the last bamboo trains before the track was upgraded and the bamboo trains would be banished from the line forever. Well, six and a half years later the bamboo trains are still running and although work has begun on upgrading the track the “norry” – as the locals call the bamboo train – shows no sign of going away.
Bamboo Train

Funded by the Asian Development bank and the Australian government the rehabilitation of Cambodia’s railway network was announced with great fanfare a few years back but, as with many grand engineering projects here, actually getting the work done has proved to be somewhat problematic. The old “network” consisted of only two single track lines – one from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in the south and the other from the capital to the Thai border at Poipet/Aranya Prathet. After the Khmer Rouge period the lines were in some disarray and passenger and freight services ceased about five years ago. Rehabilitation work on the southern line started first and was completed to Kampot down on the coast. For some reason – and it is always difficult getting hold of reliable information here (perhaps because nobody actually knows!) – work stopped and the important link to Cambodia’s only deep sea port at Sihanoukville was not completed. Work on the northern line – which runs through Battambang of course – has been even more piecemeal. I am told that the first 30 or so kilometres of track out of Phnom Penh have been replaced but then nothing more has been done until Svay Sisophon (which is about 70 north of Battambang) from where the track has been relaid up to the border town of Poipet. From there it is planned to link up with the Thai network at Aranya Prathet as it used to in happier times. One major problem it would seem is that a huge casino has been built right across the proposed route of the line and no one quite knows what to do about this.
Bamboo Train - Norry

The press here has reported that the initial budget for the works which was only $180 million in the first place has now been reached. Where the money to complete the works – which let’s face it is at best only half done – is going to come from is anyone’s guess. I have seen newspaper reports that the contractors assumed that a certain percentage of the existing track would be reusable whereas in fact most of it has had to be entirely replaced. Looking at the old tracks around Battambang I would have been surprised if any of it was reusable at all. Other problems that have beset the project include stories of families evicted from railway land without proper compensation.
Battambang Railway

I hope the project is completed eventually - it would be great shame if it was abandoned as so much work has already been done. Also the dilapidated Cambodian roads would benefit greatly from losing some of the freight that currently thunders along them. There was talk a few years back of building a brand new line between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) which would link the Malaysian, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese networks but I would imagine that given the problems encountered in Cambodia that has been put on the back burner for the time being.
Bamboo Train Railway

In the meantime then the bamboo trains which can now only be found in Battambang remain the only form of railway transport in the country.

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