Cambodia's first passenger train service in seven years pulled out of Phnom Penh station Saturday, marking a milestone in a revitalization of the country's rail network.
Prime Minister Hun Sen rode the train with senior ministers and a retinue of bodyguards to the coastal town of Sihanoukville, a popular tourist destination on the Gulf of Thailand.
Royal Railways chief executive John Guiry said the train service, restarted at a cost of over 160 million dollars, will be followed by an expansion of the line north to the Thai border by December.
“It’s an exciting time for us in the railway,” Guiry told dpa on Saturday.
Phnom Penh’s art deco station - like much of the country's rail network - was built by the French during the 1930s although the southern line was not completed until the 1960s.
The revived train service will provide an alternative to the congested two-lane road south, which is often packed with trucks and large buses.
The train is also cheaper than most other modes of transport, with tickets selling for 4-6 US dollars. A monthly wage for a Cambodian garment worker is about 130 dollars; a construction worker makes about 8 dollars a day.
At a lethargic pace of 33 kilometres per hour the train can however take up to 8 hours to do the journey.
A test run in mid-April proved to be a wild success, selling 2,250 ticket over eight days, according to the Cambodia Daily. Saturday’s train was also full.
Train enthusiast John Cronin, a British resident of Phnom Penh, was travelling to Kampot, one of the intermediary stops. “You can walk about, you can move around, you can meet more people. I feel it’s a different environment,” he said.
“Usually I drive by my own car, but today I just want to get the experience,” said Cambodian fellow passenger Ros Serey Sopheap.
The train to Sihanoukville became infamous in 1994, when Khmer Rouge guerrillas kidnapped and executed three Western tourists riding the train. Service to the south ended in 2002 due to the deteriorating condition of the railways, with the last passenger train to Battambang in central Cambodia shutting down in 2009.
Repairs to the train line have been mired in controversy since they began in 2009, with Australian firm Toll Group pulling out of the project in December 2014 despite having a 30-year concession.
The current project is financed by the Royal Group, Cambodia’s largest conglomerate, with funding from the Asian Development Bank and the Australian Agency for International Development.