The first railway in Cambodia was a line from Phnom Penh to Paoy Pet (Poipet) on the border with Thailand, where it linked with the Thai railway network. The 388km metre gauge line was opened in stages between 1932 and 1940, when the country was part of French Indochina. Between 1960 and 1969, a new 254km line was constructed linking Phnom Penh with the port of Sihanoukville.
War and other depradations lead to the decline of the railways and all services had ceased by 2009.
In 2010 a concession to rehabilitate and operate the railways was awarded to Toll Royal Railway, later simply Royal Railway as Toll Group divested its holding in the company. The work included complete rehabilitation of the southern line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and the northern line from Phnom Penh to Serei Saophoan (Sisophon), together with the rebuilding of a 48km lifted section of track between Serei Saophoan and Paoy Pet, with a link from there to the rail network of Thailand at Aranyaprathet.
The first section to be reopened was from Phnom Penh to Touk Meas on the southern line in late 2010. The remainder of the southern line to Sihanoukville was reopened for freight sevices in 2012 and passenger services in 2016.
Work to reinstate the cross-border link with Thailand was completed in 2016, together with the line fron there to Serei Saophaon. However, this section remained isolated until the remainder of the northern line was reopened in stages during 2018, effectively completing the planned network.
Also in 2018, a passenger shuttle service was inaugurated between central Phnom Penh and the International Airport. This uses a new 1.6km branch which diverges from the southern line about 8km from the capital.
A long term proposal exists for a new railway linking Phnom Penh with Vietnam, but no definite plans have emerged as yet.
During the period when the northern line was out of use, local residents in various locations would use rail mounted flat trucks for local transport on the main line. Those in the area around Battambang became popular as tourist rides, known as the Bamboo Train. With rehabilitation of the main line railway, these ad hoc services ceased in 2017, but have been recreated on a dedicated 4km stretch of line at Banang, about 20km south of Battamabang city, constructed with materials salvaged from the original line.
Photo image by Jane Borg from Polarsteps