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?

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