The stumblebum way that the scheme to regenerate Cambodia’s railway system has been handled could well form the basis for a movie starring The Three Stooges.
Moe, Larry and Curly, the late and lamented originals, would be replaced by a new trio of comics called Toll, Royal and Frenchie.
Of course, we jest; but really it is hard to keep a straight, if sad, face when contemplating the farcically mishandled endeavour.
It has been like watching quicksand slowly swallow a fat man who keeps insisting he is fine and will soon be skipping a light fandango.
Four years ago, amidst an air of optimism, the railroad restoration work was handed to a French company, Travaux du Sud-Ouest, or TSO; while a contract to operate the finished line was given to Toll Royal Railways.
Therein lies one of the key causes of the resulting fiasco.
Rail technicians, businessmen and diplomats endlessly note that it is normal practice for the company that reactivates the line to receive the right to run it for several years.
The Cambodians, however, elbowed TSO aside and awarded a 30-year concession to operate the line to a joint venture between Australia’s Toll Holdings and Cambodia’s Royal Group.
Royal’s head honcho, Kith Meng, is close to the Cambodian leadership and also holds Australian citizenship.
The Frenchies lack such ties, and so, while miffed, agreed to accept just the regeneration job, and began work on the long-disused track from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.
This Southern Line was scheduled to be ready by August 1, 2010, later revised to May 30, 2011.
It remains barely half-finished. Only the easiest section as far as Kampot has been rehabilitated – up to a point.
According to independent observers, aspects of the work done on that section are substandard, if not dangerously defective.
Instead of a level line, photographs show parts of the track looking as if they had been laid by a drunken man suffering from heat exposure.
A coherent explanation for the $143 million project’s missed deadlines and work problems has not been forthcoming because those involved have either dissembled shamefully, or have jumped ship or been sacked.
Last month, long-rumoured reports became public that Melbourne-based Toll, or rather its Metro Bar-based local affiliate, was pulling out.
TSO will likely follow.
Apparently, the Chinese will take over and finish the project, although it may be a railroad no one wants to use.
After all, the narrow gauge line to Sihanoukville was never going to be viable anyway, as railway experts and a senior minister told me back in 2009.
Consider the choice facing a local textile manufacturer who has just filled a container with shirts for Marks & Spencer in the UK.
He can take it to the railway station where it will sit until it is put on a train, which will then wait till it is loaded with other containers and then will chug down to Sihanoukville at the pace of a slow bicycle.
Then it will be off-loaded at the port, and await the next feeder boat to Singapore.
Alternatively, he can put his container on a company truck, take it straight down to Sihanoukville and put it right on the boat.
It is a no brainer.
What is perplexing is why the supervising consultant, Japan’s Nippon Koei, did not red card the project long ago.
Perhaps it was because the Asian Development Bank, essentially Japan’s instrument for overseas aid, was its main financial backer.
Along with AusAID, a secondary funder, the bank should explain why millions were given to the Cambodian government to pay TSO for its dilatory work.
Given that the ADB has proposed funding similar projects in Myanmar, the debacle has important regional implications.
Certainly, after what has happened here, well-known cronies in Yangon like Zaw Zaw, Saya Kyaung and Te Za will be slavering at the prospect of pocketing millions from the ADB’s benevolent laxity.