A Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) and public Beijing-based university have teamed up to provide technical training to Cambodian students and other participants, and develop their expertise in the railway industry, as the Kingdom moves to modernise its rail infrastructure, according to the transport ministry.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed on May 12 at the transport ministry, between Techo Sen Institute of Public Works and Transport, Beijing Urban Construction Group Co Ltd (BUCG) and Beijing Jiaotong University (BJTU), the ministry said in a statement later that day.

The primary aim of the deal is to build human resource capacity and enhance cooperation on student exchanges and field trips specialised in construction, joint research and railway technical training, the statement added.

The signatories to this MoU agreed in principle to: develop education, training and research within the scope of each party; join hands in providing training on a variety of technical skills; and take part in the exchange of officials, professors, researchers and staff, along with information and technical equipment.

Other in-principle agreements include collaboration on research and joint projects in pertinent fields; the shared use of construction materials, tools and other resources; offering opportunities for students to share learning experiences; the provision of technical assistance on education and training courses; and the attendance of conferences, seminars, training and other related events.

BUCG representative Chen Daihua said in the statement that he hopes the three parties “can move forward together and enhance the development of theories as well as the practical application of those theories, in addition to the design of training programmes [to build] human resource capacity together”.

He took the occasion to comment that the construction SOE ranks as one of China’s top 500 enterprises, and was placed in the 14th spot in Engineering News-Record’s (ENR) 2021 Top 250 Global Contractors list – down from 13th in 2020.

BJTU representative Huang Taiyan mentioned in the statement that Cambodia is a “close partner” of China and a “key player” in East Asian country’s Belt and Road Initiative.

He stressed that Phnom Penh and Beijing were paying greater attention to “strengthening exchanges and cooperation” in the fields of education and infrastructure, amid what he called “the development of bilateral relations in recent years”.

“BJTU looks forward to strengthening its relationship with the Techo Sen Institute of Public Works and Transport and [BUCG] to strengthen human resource capacity and tripartite cooperation in student exchanges and field studies, construction skills, joint research and training on railway technologies.

“These play an important role in maintaining the friendship, common prosperity and mutual benefits of both countries,” he was quoted as saying.

Hoeun Samneang, director of the institute, said that the MoU would encourage the three organisations to work closely together and assist each other.

“The aim of the institute is to train Cambodians to develop clear skills and comprehensive knowledge as well as the morality, attitude, and proper behaviours to remedy the current crisis of a lack of technical experts.

“[It also seeks] to create competent successors for Cambodia and a sense of responsibility in public works and transportation for the future, to contribute to socio-economic development,” he said in the statement.

On April 4, Prime Minister Hun Sen had called on the transport ministry to find ways to upgrade the existing railway to a high-speed system in order to improve logistics infrastructure and facilitate Cambodia’s rapid socio-economic expansion.

He lamented that the current railway infrastructure only allows for speeds of “only 20 or 30km/h” on the oldest line travelling between Phnom Penh and Poipet as well as the one between the capital and Preah Sihanouk, the site of one of the country’s main ports, and said it is failing to facilitate domestic shipping and connectivity to Cambodia’s neighbours.

“We are considering this issue and looking for a partner to build a high-speed railway system on the existing railway line. [Transport minister] Sun Chanthol was asked to consider and set up a project to find a partner to discuss this issue, because if we keep the railway as is, it will be impossible for the railway to keep up with the [socio-economic] situation” in Cambodia, he said.

Construction of the current Cambodian railway system began in 1929, with the northern and southern line, according to the transport ministry.

The 386km-long northern line from Phnom Penh to Poipet, on the Cambodia-Thailand border, was built between 1929 and 1942, during the period of French colonial rule.

The southern railway was built from 1960 to 1969, during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era, under the leadership of the late King Norodom Sihanouk and with assistance from France, West Germany and China, and spans a total of 264km.

Both railway lines were severely damaged – with some parts completely destroyed –during the Democratic Kampuchea regime, after which they were rebuilt and rehabilitated through collaboration between the transport ministry and Royal Railway Co Ltd.