Cambodia Rail


This work comprises two separate but inter-related elements, documenting the devastating and long-lasting effects the Cambodian civil war has had upon the Cambodian rail system. The work is particularly topical in light of the ongoing UN Khmer Rouge genocide trial taking place within the country as well as the recently announced plans by the Asian Development Bank to restore the entire rail network. It also constitutes an important historical document.

The images here are split between two sections:

1)     Documentary images of the now deserted train station buildings,  dilapidated and war-damaged trains, empty platforms, boarded-up ticket windows, etc. which convey a strong sense of abandonment and evoke memories of colonialism and the civil war. These images can be seen here.

2)     Reportage about the once-a-month rail service between Phnom Penh and Battambong. This 300km, 22 hr journey is the one time each month when the passenger system cranks into life. The images convey the extremely poor state of the train service and the spirit of the Cambodian people as they struggle to recover from decades of conflict. These images can be seen here.

Project Background

The Cambodian rail system stretches for over 600km, from the Thai border in the northwest of the country to the main seaport on the southern coast. The first section of the network, 340km in length, was built by the French between 1929 and 1942 from the capital city Phnom Penh to Poipet on the frontier with Thailand. The second section, 266km in length, was constructed between 1960 and 1968 with assistance from the Chinese and French governments and runs south from Phnom Penh to the coastal city of Sihanoukville.

During its prime, train travel was the dominant mode of transportation in Cambodia operating 37 trains per day, reaching a peak of 180 million passenger-km in 1969. Unfortunately, the civil war during the 1970s and the subsequent aftermath into the 1990s exacted a heavy toll on the system. More than 200km of track was destroyed by land mine explosions and artillery shells; 48 bridges were blown up; 47 station buildings were badly damaged; and the telecommunications system was rendered useless. The motive power and rolling stock fleet were similarly decimated with the majority destroyed. Maintenance on all but essential components was neglected due to security problems and the need to focus resources on keeping the line open following track or bridge damage by mines or artillery.

The condition of both lines remains poor. The southern section from Phnom Penh to Sihahnoukville is completely closed and of the northern section, only the track between Phnom Penh and Battambong is operational. Due to a lack of funds for maintenance there is now just one passenger train per month, running at an average speed of 15kmph and comprising two small carriages. The new Chinese-built diesel-electric locomotives unveiled by the Cambodian government in 2004 cannot be used due to the poor state of the infrastructure. On certain parts of the line, local villagers have even resorted to homemade trolley trains with bamboo floors and rubber wheels.