Rail dream still on track to unite continents

Updated: 2011-10-12 07:56

By Alfred Romann (China Daily)

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Rail dream still on track to unite continents

Mekong focus

Despite official commitment and national railway development, progress has been spotty. The Northern Corridor across China and Russia has operated for decades, linking China with Europe. In Southeast Asia, however, things have moved at a slower pace.

Last October, Chartier noted a lot of missing links. There are no actual rail connections between China and Laos or China and Myanmar. Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia are not linked; neither are Cambodia with Vietnam, or Vietnam with Laos.

Over the next few years, much of the building activity will be focused in this region, in particular the Mekong subregion.

Surprisingly, the financial crisis of 2008 sped up the network's development, unlike the 1997 crisis when many governments abandoned projects. Collaboration among China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand demonstrates what Chartier called "the mobilization of governments on projects with multilateral dimensions".

China is a big driver behind much of the building. Not only is the government making massive investments in its own railways, but it is also financing those in other countries. It is likely to provide up to 70 percent of the investment in the link that will go through Laos.

While TAR is an overarching agreement, regional and bilateral deals are pushing the actual construction. One such agreement among the six countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion should lead to further railway integration. China has also signed a deal for the Kunming-Singapore link.

Malaysia started building its own section of TAR in 1995. In March 2009, Thailand and Laos launched a rail link.

Closing gaps

Despite the progress, holes remain.

One is in Myanmar. At the end of May, Chinese workers and engineers started work on a line that would link Kunming to the Myanmar border, but then there is a 160-km gap on the Myanmar side. Also, the two lines operate on different gauges.

In Vietnam, China Railway Construction workers are expected to complete the link between Loc Ninh and Ho Chi Minh City by 2013.

In Cambodia, serious train travel restarted a year ago, when the first stretch of rail between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas opened. The 254-km line from Phnom Penh to the port of Sihanoukville opened this year. Other work continues.

After decades of bamboo trains, a functioning railway network is beginning to emerge, linking Cambodia to the rest of Asia and much of the world.

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