The restarting of a passenger train service between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in April after a 14-year absence added another transport option for people wishing to travel between the coast and the capital.
Running Friday to Sunday, the service has been heralded by passengers and operator Royal Railway as a more comfortable and safer alternative than braving the nation’s roads.
Yet the 12 weekly journeys, in addition to the 14 daily cargo trains that travel the 266km line, have not been without problems – it has had a steady stream of accidents, injuries and fatalities associated with motor vehicles crashing into the trains and people sleeping on the tracks.
Royal Railway insists that in each of the more than 10 accidents that have happened this year, it was motorists or pedestrians and their disregard of road and personal safety that was the cause.
This disregard was evident during a recent journey from Phnom Penh to Kampot. As the train passed through Kampot province’s Angkor Chey district, a motorcycle rider approached the train at high speed. In the rain, and with little attention to his surroundings, he was only meters away when he noticed the train, jumping off his bike and narrowly avoiding an accident.
“I don’t know why they do not look at the coming train, which is certainly loud and often sounding its horn. Some people seem to be playing chicken with the train,” said operations manager Boeun Sobin, who watched the near-miss from a carriage window.
“Normally, we have our crew members to block the public road any time the train crosses, but mostly the big roads, not the small ones,” he said.
This appears to be the major problem in maintaining safety along the line. While barriers and staff can stop cars and motorcycles from crossing the tracks ahead of an approaching train, the plethora of minor crossings make it impossible to fully control the traffic.
“The cars and trucks mostly crash into the trains because they did not listen to the horn or were trying to cross before the train arrived,” explained Mr. Sobin, citing an example of a car crossing in front of the train and then inexplicably stopping.
“I am in awe of the car drivers as they often only get mild injuries and sometimes they are even able to run away from the scene,” he said with a smile.
The incident in question happened in Kandal province in April. The driver of the car, his wife and four children all received minor injuries and no charges were brought after he apologized to authorities.
In May, the driver of a minibus tried to use a cattle-crossing on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to cross the tracks, but became stuck and abandoned the vehicle, which was hit by a train carrying diesel.
In June, a cement truck drove into the side of a cargo train in Kandal province, breaking the driver’s back and destroying the train’s engine. It was the second incident involving a cement truck this year after an earlier crash in Kampot province in March.
In July, a car containing another family overturned after hitting a train in Preah Sihanouk province, causing only minor injuries.
Mr. Sobin could not recall the exact number of accidents and deaths for the year, but he stressed that in every case, the train drivers were not at fault. He said that while in a number of cases “donations” had been paid to families of pedestrians injured or killed along the tracks, in crashes, Royal Railway normally requested compensation themselves.
“Drivers have to pay us instead, because we have not done anything wrong as the train runs only on the same route,” he said. After the June crash with the cement truck, $600,000 had been demanded as payment to replace the totaled engine.
Authorities in every case have ruled that the drivers were at fault, explained staff member Chhiv Kimlay. Watching the rain-soaked scenery pass by outside the train, he blamed the crashes on drivers wearing headphones and not listening for the audible signs of the approaching trains.
At Kampot station, level controller Cheam Mean said he had seen a number of accidents, with drunk drivers being the recurring theme.
“Where I guard, four accidents have happened so far this year – one car and three motorbikes were all hit by trains. Mostly, the drivers were drunk and driving too fast,” he said, recalling one motorcycle rider crashing straight into the boom barrier at high speed.
He said the barriers were usually lowered 10 minutes or so before the trains arrive and the train drivers take extra caution when crossing smaller roads that do not have any barriers.
Not all the incidents have involved vehicles, with more than one case of pedestrians being hit by the trains, almost always at night.
In July, two men were discovered separately, having apparently been hit by trains overnight, and in both cases police said they were likely either drunk or mentally ill.
On the night of August 17, a drunk man was killed after police claim he fell asleep on tracks in Kampot province after an argument with his parents.
“He was estimated to have been run over at about 3am. The train was carrying oil tankers. According to the police investigation, between 8pm and 11pm he drank rice wine and was scolded by his parents. He got angry and went to sleep on the tracks,” explained Khang Lech commune police chief Nget Vart at the time.
And last Sunday, a man died after his foot was severed by a train, with police saying he had drunkenly fallen asleep on tracks in Kampot province.
San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, told Khmer Times that the number of crashes along the railway was neither surprising nor a new phenomenon.
“It has happened since the 1980s. I used to take the train from Kampot to Sihanoukville and saw the train running over people and hitting a bus.”
He put the blame for such incidents squarely onto the victims, but noted that Royal Railway and local authorities must do more to help reduce the chances of accidents occurring.
“Some people were driving cars and not paying attention to the oncoming train, so the company should have strict controls as trains cross,” he said.
“And some people were not aware of the resumption of the passenger train. They used to go herd the cows or get drunk and sleep on the train tracks before and it was fine, so they keep doing the same and were run over by the train.”
He said that more needed to be done by local authorities to remove the opportunities for drunk, careless or risky drivers to injure themselves.
Kandal province’s Trapaing Veng district police chief Has Saroeun described yesterday how after a minor incident involving a motorcycle rider, there was now a guard to stop traffic as each train passes. There have been no subsequent accidents he said.
Transport Ministry spokesperson Var Sim Soriya said the ministry’s only role relating to railway safety was to give out information about road and train safety in an effort to educate the public.
“We actually have little ability because of our limited budget. We can only disseminate and educate the public, and anyway Royal Railway has their crossing guards to avoid accidents,” he said.
With the northern line, linking Phnom Penh to Poipet on the border with Thailand – and from there to Bangkok – projected to be ready by early next year, it remains unclear who exactly will take responsibility for safety, and how it will be paid for.
While Royal Railway has spent millions of dollars this year on efforts to improve safety along the line to Sihanoukville, the northern line is three times as long and has not seen regular rail travel of any kind for many years.
“We have the right to lobby the Royal Railway to work on safety, however, we don’t know when that will be yet because it is the decision of the safety committee,” Mr. Sim Soriya said.
Traffic waits at a crossing for the train to pass. KT/Chor Sukunthea
A guard on duty at a crossing as the train rolls past. KT/Chor Sukunthea