Sam Sherwood-Hale sat down with the CEO of Cambodia’s Royal Railway John Guiry at Phnom Penh Railway Station

I was in Phnom Penh during February to try out Cambodia’s railways which are in the final stages of rehabilitation. The Northern Line which runs to the border of Thailand at Poipet, the Southern Line which runs down to the port at Sihanoukville and the Airport Shuttle all meet at Phnom Penh’s Royal Railway Station. Interior arches run up the walls of the terminal building like the ribcage of a whale, its high ceiling housing three portraits of the Cambodian royal family which greet passengers arriving on the Airport Shuttle.

I had agreed to meet John Guiry, the CEO of Royal Railway which is responsible for operation and maintenance of the railway, at the station at 9 o’clock on a glowing Sunday morning in February. The train south to Sihanoukville left two hours ago and the station is largely empty, but I find John already hard at work.

‘Right now, my biggest problem is I don’t have enough locomotives, wagons and equipment – the demand is growing quicker than I can supply’ John tells me as we sit in his office, train orders sheets spread out on his desk.

‘Back in 2010 we were asking businesses if they needed trains and our focus was on trying to promote the merits of trains. But now we have a lot people saying they need more trains. What I am doing here is looking over the books to see if we can more equipment in and how we can massage the schedule to get as many trains as possible to places that need them. If you compared us to the lifespan of a human, we’re not even a teenager yet but we’re growing quickly.’

At nine months old John was in Singapore where his father was a pilot for the RAF, after a period in England, then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Botswana and South Africa the family moved to Australia.

‘In school in Australia I found I was good at maths and science’ John recalls. ‘I took up electronics and then I did civil engineering degree and volunteered in the army before joining the railways. I was head of wagon maintenance and supply, then I was promoted to the same role for the locomotives. It was there that you could get involved in the workshops and the operational side of things.

‘I carried on getting promoted to the senior operational level in Melbourne, then I was a general manager. I was quite young to be a general manager so in meetings there would be ten guys going back and forth and one of them would say you’d need to ask the boss and they’d point at me and everyone would look surprised.

‘I did seven-and-a-half years of train control, there were eleven control boards and I learned all of them in that time, I also started dealing with the unions.’

I ask him how useful this technical knowledge has been in his experience in Cambodia:

‘In this country you need to have that, I have been in corporate management since I was 27, I was head of operations towards the end of the Government era in Australia through to the split between passenger and freight trains.

‘As the railways evolved and all these changes happened, I bought in the aggregate wage system and saw through the period of modernization and then I got the opportunity to come here in 2010 and it was like an Indiana Jones movie – we opened up the cupboards and blew off the cobwebs and got to work.

‘The railway hadn’t run for two years, so I was COO of nothing really. We had to dig through the mud and get it to where it is today as it’s starting to look like a real railway, we do 44 trips a day now and passenger trains are bedded in and we’re starting to increase our services a week. The Northern line to Poipet is open now, we ran trains from 4th July to 18th November and then we had to stop and fix up five more bridges. The speeds are still slow, the track is designed for 80kph with an average of 50kph. The speeds are coming up on the passenger trains and today we’re sending a fuel train up there.’

The track rehabilitation process in Cambodia is part of the reason for John’s optimism:

‘The track rehabilitation work was carried out by the Government with a loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the money was intended to upgrade the north and south line, the north was completed, and parts of south were done before the cash ran out. The line was in a worse condition than I think we realised. There was a lot of debate about problems with culverts or drainages or the different types of clay, during dry season the clay is like concrete and then in the rainy season the place is surrounded by water.

‘In 2011 and 2012 we had some problems with track rehabilitation but by the end of 2013 we were back on top of things. The first few months of 2013 we had trouble accessing the tracks, by the end of the year we ran a train to Sihanoukville with 50 containers, we offered the service for free to try an encourage people to use them.

‘The last train to Sihanoukville at the end of the civil war took 28 days because of the terrible condition it was in. Now we have to try and get back the people’s trust and make the case that a freight train is worthwhile for a small or medium company looking to move goods down to the port. Back before the war Sihanoukville only had three ships a week so getting freight there on time was essential.

‘Since 2013, however, it’s going up every year, two years ago I started telling people we were going to run out of wagons and locomotives, and now we are. We have 136 wagons and six locomotives, in reality we need over 200 wagons and ten locomotives to fulfill the orders we have. If those new trains arrived outside today, we’d put them straight to work.

‘We now do four service to Sihanoukville a day. The northern line we do one a week, but we need to do three a week. People are getting used to the railway and seeing the benefits of being able to get 120 containers on one order all being able to go on one train and arriving at the same time and getting on the ship at the same time. 560 road trucks have to get in and out of the port between 7am and midday and they can’t do it. Logistically it’s a headache and that message is starting to sink in.’

I turn the conversation away from fixing up old rail lines to the potential for new ventures that rail can bring – chiefly the rapidly expanding city of Sihanoukville.

‘I was down in Sihanoukville in July to receive these trains from Mexico and the city has totally changed, the investment there is gigantic. In a few years when they finish all the buildings it will be a very modern city.’

There are also opportunities in the northwest of Cambodia, where the Northern line reaches, though there aren’t as many regular trains heading in that direction as there are to the south – the potential for cross border trade with Thailand also helps the business case for rail.

Thailand is one of Cambodia’s main trading partners with bilateral trade valued at $6 billion in 2017. The vast majority of that is made up of exports from Thailand to Cambodia, with trade in the other direction valued at just $937 million.

The two countries have agreed to an ambitious goal of $15 billion in cross-border trade by 2020, according to the Thai Government. Soeng Sophary, spokesperson at the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce, says it is possible due to strong ties between both Governments.

‘Right now, we’re waiting for regulations on the Thai side to be agreed so we can start sending trains across the border – you can drive a car, take bus or a bike across the border but there’s no laws regarding the train yet.

‘In high season to move a 20 feet container by road from Battambang is $660 in low season is $320, on the railways we can do it for $174. We’re here in the heart of the city and we have this huge space which can be a focal point of the city as it should be.

It’s not just improving old trade routes that present opportunities, last year the Airport Shuttle was launched.

‘When we planned the airport shuttle I thought two-and-a-half kilometres down 105k street sounded easy but we had to rip up the road the whole way down and put in two metres times two metres box culverts all the way down, we had to assist in the removal of shop fronts and widen the road, we found water pipes that needed relocating, we found electrical cables and other cables that we never identified.’

The Airport Shuttle now runs smoothly and even though it has been over five years since my last time in Phnom Penh I think it’s by far the most pleasant way to get into the city, and at just $2.50 it is also the most economical.