22 April 2019: Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-O-Cha and Cambodian Prime Minster, Hun Sen, have officially re-open the rail link between Thailand and Cambodia. As part of the inauguration ceremony the two Prime Ministers travelled on the first train to cross the border between Thailand and Cambodia since 1973. This new link, which runs 1.3 km from Ban Khlong Luek in Thailand to Poipet Railway Station in Cambodia, is the third international train link on the Thai railway network after the link between Padang Besar in Thailand and Padang Besar Railway Station in Malaysia and the link between Nongkhai Railway Station in Thailand and Thanaleng Railway Station in Laos and the first international link on Cambodia’s railway network.
Does that mean we can now get a train between Thailand and Cambodia?
Not quite. An agreement between Cambodia and Thailand setting out the terms of cross border rail connections has been signed and the Thai Government has provided a 4 carriage diesel train for Cambodia’s Royal Railways to operate on the cross border link, but the service itself hasn’t started yet. When it does it will link Thailand railway services from Bangkok to Ban Khlong Luek Railway Station with Cambodia railway services operating between Poipet Station and Phnom Penh.
What about the Bangkok to Phnom Penh Rail Link?
In theory direct train services could start running between Bangkok and Phnom Penh and onto Sihanoukville straight away. In practice there are a few issues to resolve.
Firstly, who would run a through service, Thailand or Cambodia? Thailand has better trains and is the only one of the two countries with sleeper trains, but would Cambodia agree to allow Thailand to effectively control a financially lucrative service like this and how would they calculate what contributions the State Railways of Thailand should make to the maintenance and operation of railway track in Cambodia?
Secondly, the railway track from Bangkok to Phnom Penh is in need of improvement. The journey by train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet is painfully slow partly because the track needs modernising, but its no where near as slow as the journey by train from Poipet to Phnom Penh. By train it currently takes 11 hours 45 minutes to travel from Poipet to Phnom Penh, which is a massive improvement on the 15 hours it used to take to travel from Poipet to Phnom Penh in 2018 but is still slow compared to the 7 hour journey by road. Without delays, the journey from Bangkok to Phnom Penh would take 16 hours 15 minutes without allowing for time for passengers to pass through both sets of border control.
The slowness of the journey, due to the current condition of the track in both Thailand and Cambodia, is likely to reduce the popularity of the service and negatively affect the commercial viability of the service. Until these two issues are resolved it seems unlikely that direct trains services between Phnom Penh and Bangkok will start.