China reawakens Asian rail plans

Construction News Laos

By The Nation
Published on September 21, 2010

Plans to link the nations of Asia by railway have been around for decades.

In 1960, Escap (the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) initiated the Trans-Asian Railway – a 114,000-kilometre rail network between Asia and Europe. The project was derailed by wars in Indochina, the Cultural Revolution in China and a lack of finance for Asian mega-projects.

The scheme was given a shot in the arm, on paper anyway, in 2006 when 22 Asian governments signed a deal to cooperate on the rail link. It went into effect in June last year after China ratified it.

More significant has been China‘s push to turn the rail-network dream into reality, especially in Southeast Asia, which accounts for 8,000km of “missing links”.

Thailand and China this year started talks on a high-speed, standard-gauge 850km rail link from Nong Khai, on the Laotian border, to Bangkok. A 1,000km line between Bangkok and Padang Besar, on the Malaysian border, would be built later. The two would cost about Bt300 billion.

“The Chinese government believes this can be implemented within three years,” Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanich said. “If there is any delay, I suspect it will be at our end, not theirs.”

Another likely problem for the Thai-China rail project is the Laos link.

Having a high-speed rail link between Nong Khai and Bangkok makes little economic sense unless there is a similar link between Laos and southern China. Such a link is under discussion.

“I understand they are looking at three different routes, but all of them would be mountainous, and potentially very expensive,” said a Vientiane-based aid expert.

“But the Laotian government is taking the project extremely seriously, as part of its aim to turn Laos from a landlocked to land-linked country.”

Nipon Poapongsakorn, head of the Thailand Development Research Institute, said: “Laos is the weakest but most important link. Unless there is a benefit for Laos, it will just become a transit for goods and passengers. What will they get from this other than pollution?”

Two years ago, China started building a rail link between Dali, Yunnan, and Ruli, on the Burmese border.

One physical constraint is the different gauges. China uses the standard 1.435-metre gauge, whereas all of Southeast Asia uses 1-metre gauge.

“Obviously, if a network decided to shift from one gauge to another, it would require a huge investment in running stock,” said Pierre Chartier, economic affairs officer at Escap’s transport division.

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