Trains that don’t run on time

I had never heard of the amazing “norry”, the bamboo railway of Battambang province, Cambodia, until a few nights ago when it was on ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme, so I googled it and discovered I was probably the last person in the world to hear about it. Check out this tourist blog, for instance, where I got some of these photos, or here or here (thank you all, whoever wherever you are).

The norry is an illegal rail system that runs on more or less unused old rail lines. The carriages are flat bamboo platforms on wheels made from tank track runners

and powered by a two stroke motor. It is easily assembled and disassembled so if you meet another norry coming in the opposite direction the one with the lightest load is pulled apart so the other can pass.

It’s a delightful bit of technology, an adaptive reuse of the old French colonial rail system that fell into disuse and disrepair after the Khmer Rouge banned its use. Throughout the developed world governments have destroyed public railway systems as a way of clandestinely assisting their patrons in the car, oil and road construction industries. The Khmer Rouge took this approach one step further by killing everyone involved with the colonial railway.

In the years since, with roads barely passable or riddled with landmines, the old rail lines have been taken over by inventive villagers who have developed what could be described as an open source railway – home made, self managed and safe.

I particularly like the joke first class section, consisting of two mats on the floor. If only the rest of the world’s inequality was that trivial.

There is one aspect of it all that really amuses me. In some ways it was the development of rail that led to that crucial early marker of modernity, our whole modern system of universal standard time. Is this the only post modern railway, the one railway in the world that doesn’t need to run on time?


  1. Posted 3 Nov ’06 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Maybe you were the second last person in the world to hear about this system. improvised open air train-travel using recycled military hardware emerging out of the necessity of the people of an underdeveloped country, this thing is just too damn cool. reminds me a bit of Cuba’s camels; (

    also makes you realize that the people of ‘undeveloped’ countries are definitely world leaders when it comes to this whole adaptive reuse thing. its a curious thing because while ‘environmental consciousness’ may not be that high, economic necessity demands that everything that can be reused is reused, (for example in Mexico City their are markets where you can buy all sorts of things that have be dug out of the tip). And when it comes to transport anything with wheels is used to move all manner of things around.

    I’m a bit of a resistor to the car when it comes to my own transportation, so i lug all sorts of things around on my bike (including almost everything i use to make my work). I guess there’s part of me that enjoys the looks that i get from people who drive past when I’m pushing timber-laden bike down the street, but then i think, if i was in Mexico people wouldn’t even look twice.

    there’s more on “the special period” (after the soviet union collapsed) in Cuba at this website. ( the power-point presentation (“Cuba; a peak oil country”) goes through some of the adaptions Cuba has had to make as a country since that time.

  2. Posted 1 Nov ’07 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    The scenic, culturally significant and highly biodiverse Myola Valley, near Kuranda in Far North Queensland, is currently the site of a proposal by the local Council and State Government to build a new car-dependent suburb of 9,000-11,000.

    Read about it and weep:

    Do we really still need to be fighting these silly battles against Mammon in 2007? Apparently so.

    Anyhow, back to norries. I also saw the amazing ABC Foreign Correspondent program about how Cambodians have taken back their railways and put them to work. Simple, human-scale, adaptable and artistic – and not reliant on government or corporations. Sweet!

    The lightly-populated Myola Valley, at present, is served by a road and a railway line. The railway, however, is barely used. Norries, IMO, are the perfect solution for a community with a substantial indigenous component, fed up waiting for the Government to revitalize rail, when it clearly has minimal interest in doing so. It can only think ‘big rail’.

    Enter norries – a decentralized solution to facilitating regular rail services, affordable and not requiring high population densities for viability. That might just work here…

    I look forward to the day when Myola, as an early southern-hemisphere adopter, has norries that are widely-respected for artistic merit, safety and ecologically responsible design.

    A couple of questions. How can we get the state off our backs so we (the people) can make effective re-use of our public rail easements? I have some idea how this occurred in Cambodia. We need a less painful solution. And what is the most feasible zero-emissions technology to power norries?

  3. TJF
    Posted 24 Nov ’10 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Your comment “safe” is misleading – every year there are a number of deaths of passengers unfortunate enough to fall under the carts. Yes, practical and efficient but not without risk to life and limb.

    As of November 2010, freight and passenger trains are again running on Cambodia’s railways. Whilst it might be some years in the future, the use of norries will decline.

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  1. By » Magic carpet ride on 17 Feb ’08 at 3:59 pm

    […] few months ago when we did a post on the Cambodian norry railway we searched high and low for similar DIY railways but all we found were high tech/high capital […]

  2. […] photo via Adaptive Reuse […]

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