Cambodia looks to expand its railways network

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The railway network in Cambodia is relatively limited, with the lines running north and south catering for cargo and passengers. However, in recent years, a possible rail connection to Thailand has been discussed and now links to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam are being explored.

Cambodian railway network

The value of Cambodia’s international trade (total import and export volume) was valued at US$36.7 billion (149.6 trillion Riel) in 2019. And although Cambodian seaports, airports and major roads have all gone through major upgrades or undergoing them, the cost of logistics to and from the Kingdom remains an issue for investors and businesses.

Cambodia Logistics Association (CLA) President Sin Chanthy, said in October 2020 that 40 per cent of goods transported from China to Cambodia pass through Vietnam. China is increasingly a major trade partner for the Kingdom and an integral part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

A commercial train service linking Cambodia’s two ports of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville was first relaunched in 2013 with help from the Australian government and Asian Development Bank.

The Royal Railway Cambodia, part of the Royal Group, is the owner and operator of the Northern and Southern Railway Lines – open for Passenger and Freight/Commercial Services. However, they have been criticised by passengers for the lack of updates on services. At the time of publishing, their website is not working and the information is only on their Facebook page.

Most expats actually use a separate Facebook page called Trains and Railways Cambodia for their updates on the services and schedules.

The passenger line between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville stops in Takeo and Kampot on the so-called Southern Line. The train network expanded to a Northern Line as well, from Phnom Penh to Pursat, Battambang and Poipet but this service has seen a number of disruptions.

cambodia railway train chinese investment
Circa 2017: Royal Railway train stands at the Sihanoukville passenger station

In May 2019, by request of the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, China Railway Construction Corporation arrived in Cambodia to conduct feasibility studies on Cambodian railway upgrades, including bridge and track repairs, and double-tracking. High-speed service routes between Siem Reap – Phnom Penh – Kampot – Sihanoukville, and rapid transit construction in Phnom Penh were also part of the study.

It also of note, that agricultural goods and other heavy cargo are particularly suited to rail freight in the Kingdom as they are generally not wanted by trucking companies and the roads are increasingly congested.

Improving upon the current train network, internationally and domestically in Cambodia, could potentially boost trade, and tourism to the region.

Phnom Penh rail links

In July 2020, a proposed sky train from Phnom Penh’s Central Market (Phsar Thmey) to the Phnom Penh International Airport was abandoned due to the high costs.

A train service for passengers from and to the Phnom Penh international Aiport has been run for several years with varying degrees of success. However, there were also signs during the COVID-19 pandemic that this service would stop, possibly for good. The Transport Ministry said it was considering temporarily discontinuing the shuttle train service due to falling ridership in July 2020.

Two further studies by Chinese firms are undergoing to look at easing congestion in Phnom Penh. These include the construction of a monorail and a metro in the capital. The studies started in May 2018 and at the time were said to take up to two years to complete.

AGT sky train project Phnom Penh
AGT sky train project Phnom Penh was abandoned in 2020

New Train routes linking Cambodia

Cambodia and Thailand train links

Train services between the two SEA countries of Cambodia and Thailand were terminated more than 45 years ago, amid conflict arising from the domestic civil war in Cambodia.

Fast forward to 2020 and a train route is meant to connect Poipet to Thailand and could eventually carry passengers from Phnom Penh to Bangkok. However, the situation has not progressed much over a number of years.

The domestic passenger train services in Cambodia currently reach Poipet, which is only six kilometres from the Thai border at Ban Klong Luk.

In April 2019, Thailand and Cambodia had signed an agreement to jointly operate the train service linking the two countries and put in place an agreement on cross-border rail transportation. Thailand had even started running trains from Bangkok to Ban Klong Luk border station in Sa Kaeo province in July 2019.

The Khmer Times reported that “the northern rail link will connect Cambodia and Thailand starting at Phnom Penh and travelling to Poipet on the Thai border, a distance of 386 kilometres. At Poipet, a Thai train engine will be fitted to allow onward passage to Bangkok. The Cambodian part of the track was refurbished and used temporarily in late 2018.”

Bilateral trade between Cambodia and Thailand reached $9.41 billion by the end of 2019.

Cambodia Thailand trains
In April 2019, Thailand and Cambodia had signed an agreement to jointly operate the train service

Cambodia and Vietnam train links

There is currently no railway connection between Vietnam and Cambodia. A network connecting Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City has been proposed a number of times historically, including in the 1930s, and then again by the SEAN–Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC) as part of the Kunming–Singapore Railway project.

On the Vietnamese side, a 129 km rail line would begin with a junction of the North-South Railway at Dĩ An Railway Station and would end in Lộc Ninh, Bình Phước Province, close to the Cambodian border.

The Cambodian government announced in October 2020 that it is studying the possibility of a railway from Phnom Penh to Bavet town, which is situated at the Cambodian-Vietnamese international border checkpoint.

Ly Borin, Ministry of Public Works and Transport undersecretary of state told local media that a new railway in Svay Rieng province is underway already and that a railway construction study was started midway in 2020. In the same week, Khmer Times reported that a study had already been concluded by a Chinese firm.

Borin added “We are studying a railway connecting Snuol district, Kratie province and Bavet city, Svay Rieng province. The Vietnamese side asked us to build a railway from Phnom Penh to Bavet city. The Vietnamese side will build a railway from Ho Chi Minh City to Bavet.”

Growth of e-commerce in Cambodia

According to joint research by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company, Southeast Asia’s e-commerce sector is on track to reach $150 billion in sales by 2025 from $38 billion in 2019 and Cambodia has been targeting a growth in its e-commerce sector and the digitalisation of its economy.

Better supply chain and logistics infrastructures will aid this endeavour and boost exports and imports as well as giving Cambodian consumers easier access to international e-commerce sites such as Amazon and Alibaba.

Best Inc, a Chinese integrated supply chain and logistics solutions provider, plans to operate 12 sorting centres and around 400 service stations across Malaysia, Cambodia and Singapore from 2020-2023. This includes operating a customized flagship sorting centre in Phnom Penh that will be “equipped with cutting-edge automation equipment like high-speed automatic sorting lines and dimension-weight-scanning systems” reports the Khmer Times.

If packages and shipments are more easily transported to and from Cambodia via improved rail networks and shipping centres, it will open up many doors to entrepreneurs and businesses in the Kingdom, who are hamstrung by current inadequate and expensive international logistics services.

You can read more about Cambodian Transportation & Logistics in our guide.

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