Wheels in motion

Mark Tilly / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
A train sits in a Royal Railways workshop as the company continues to update its fleet. KT/Mark Tilly

Pchum Ben holidaymakers made the most of the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville rail service last week, with an increase in passengers and services according to the rail service operator, which is looking toward a major expansion in the next 12 months.

John Guiry, CEO of Royal Railways, said two passenger services ran daily from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville over four days, with every service from Phnom Penh reaching the train’s capacity of 320 passengers.

Guiry said the increase in passengers was thanks to an uptick in awareness among the general public of the railway, and the increasing reliability and convenience of the service.

“People have got used to it by now … foreigners, tourists, locals … we carried our first Rolls Royce on board,” he said.

“You can sit down, relax, and be fresh and ready to go.”

He said he would be holding a meeting today to determine how much money ticket sales had
raised during the holiday, adding that triple the revenue compared to last year’s earnings would be
a “conservative” estimate.

Touch Polnork, 36, commuted from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and back during the holiday with his family of 10.

He praised the improvements and comfort of the rail service, along with not having to worry about the notoriously dangerous roads over the break.

“It was such a wonderful time to ride on the train. It does not cost much compared to taking the bus or car,” he said yesterday.

“Riding on the train gives a chance to see the nice views and not take risks with traffic accidents.”

Guiry admitted that last Pchum Ben they were caught off guard by the number of passengers who wanted to use the service, especially how many people wanted motorbikes to be transported, so this year he said extra carriages and staff were in place to make sure operations ran smoothly.

“We were better this year than we were last year. We get caught more on motos and cars,” he said.

“Those trains transport about 30-36 motos from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. The other way is anywhere between 15-36.”

There were no reports of accidents or collisions at level crossings during the holiday period despite the increase in traffic on the roads, which Guiry attributes to their efforts to inform the public about the railway.

“What we did leading up to it, every week before Pchum Ben for two weeks, we went down and back with the speaker system and leaflets – not to sell tickets, but to warn people,” he said.

The rail service, which began running freight trains in 2010 and passenger services last year, has not been without its growing pains.

Royal Railways employees work on the maintenance of the passenger trains. KT/Mark Tilly

Negligent car drivers stopping at level crossings, or people drunkenly falling asleep on the track being killed or injured by passing freight and passenger trains have been widely reported, as well as derailments and collisions with other trains.

In January, three people were injured in Preah Sihanouk province when a freight train and a passenger train collided, with a train operator allegedly blaming faulty brakes, which Royal Railways flatly denied.

Guiry said they are informing the public by distributing leaflets in communities that live along
the railway as well as attempting to encourage locals to educate people unfamiliar with the relatively new service.

“We’ve got TV station ads about being careful. What it’s aimed at is the locals that living on the line,” he said.

“People come from provinces where there’s no train, walk along the line, not pay attention. The locals that know about it – we’re trying to encourage them to tell visitors, to look after them.”

He said Royal Railways is continuing to update its fleet of 22 trains which have had their wheels replaced, along with installing locomotives and carriages with new undercarriages in order to reach speeds of up 80-90kph compared to the current 60kph.

While four trains are currently out of service, once operational, Guiry said the company will be able to run direct express services from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville by December, estimating the travel time based off test runs at roughly five hours.

He also said currently inactive stations along the line, including Damnak Chang Auer station near Kep town, and Pochentong station will be operational and feature on the tracks by July next year.

Damnak Chang Auer station is roughly five kilometres from central Kep, with Guiry stating they are currently in talks with guesthouses in order to provide taxi and tuk-tuk services to and from the station once it is operational.

Pochentong station, located near Phnom Penh International Airport, will be in service in April to May next year once the light rail service between the airport and central Phnom Penh station
begins operation.

Guiry noted these features alongside upgrading ticketing systems, allowing passengers to book tickets online through select ticketing operators and via its sister company Wing within the next month, showed the service was beginning to mature.

“We’re just at the stage that we’ve grown up and we can put these proper systems in place. Now we’re putting some energy into passenger (services) rather than freight,” he said.

Despite this, talks on completing the much delayed Thailand to Cambodia rail link were shelved when Prime Minister Hun Sen met his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha earlier this month.

However, passenger Polnork said he was looking forward to the future of the expanded rail services and what it could bring to the country.

“The train system at the moment is much better than before and I hope more people will ride on the train in the future,” he said.

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