The bright white colours of the rail station – recently repainted- seem to shimmer under the strong sun. Standing majestically on a rather empty square in the midst of Phnom Penh city centre, the beautiful structure was built from 1928 to 1931 by French architect Louis Victor Chaucon, who codesigned Phnom Penh famed Central Market (Psar Thmei). The station offers a typical Art Deco style. But despite its renovation, it has been staying empty since 2002, 14 years ago.
The station used to welcome in the past two rail lines: Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh-Battambang. However, improved road conditions contributed to the end of rail business as most passengers favour a ride by bus with many services and cheap fares. In 2002, the Phnom Penh-Battambang trip by train took almost 17 hours… compared to 4 hours on average by road!
But rail services are back to Cambodia. Since April 9, Royal Railway, Cambodia’s private rail company is operating a daily service between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, however only for a nine-day trial period, corresponding to the New Year holiday.
According to an interview of Royal Railway CEO John Guiry with newspaper Phnom Penh Post, the service has been extremely well accepted by travellers with most of the trains being already fully booked. A surprising achievement especially as trains remain painfully slow: the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville distance of 260 km is covered in approximately eight hours. Trains can transport up to 400 guests.
However, according to Guiry to the Phnom Post, they are no plans for now to operate on a regular daily basis. However, trains will operate for special events but also during holidays to Sihanoukville with the possibility to add a coach to transport motorcycles. Royal Railway is ready to discuss with tour operators which would like to organise a private event with rail transportation for their customers.
Another important project is the reactivation of the Northern line which goes through Battambang. It is now being extended to Thailand and should be completed by the end of the year. The Cambodian government is currently funding the 46 last km to the Thai border. Such a line would help to lower the cost of freight and be an alternative to bus trips for travellers.