Trans-Asian Railroad Gets a Closer Look by Transport Ministers
International Herald Tribune: October 12, 2006
By VAUDINE ENGLAND
HONG KONG — Nearly 50 years ago, some of the world’s top planners and engineers had a dream: Bind together the vast expanse of rail tracks across Asia and Europe to create the world’s longest train ride.
But the trans-Asian railroad has mostly remained a blueprint, with some countries failing to make progress on technical and procedural coordination across and between borders.
Now, the momentum may be about to change. On Nov. 10 in Pusan, South Korea, transport ministers from more than two dozen countries are scheduled to sign an agreement defining a framework for a Trans-Asian Railway Network.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, which effectively oversees the project, hopes that the agreement will add to the global growth in containerized freight and spread its benefits.
The framework will allow the project to move toward the goal of ferrying people and goods more easily from Asia to Europe to the Caucasus and back, said Nigel C. Rayner, an official at the Asian Development Bank. Necessary planning includes how to handle paperwork for border crossings and the technicalities of desired speeds and loads of trains.
A huge challenge that must be solved is how to connect tracks of varying sizes, or gauges, across borders.
The idea for a trans-Asia system emerged in 1960, when several Asian governments conducted feasibility studies for a continuous link of nearly 9,000 miles. In 1976, the idea was expanded to include links between rural areas and ports.
But progress was stalled by wars, civil conflicts, the cold war and communism.
Only in 1992 were ideas for further links expanded, under a project called the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development.
In the mid-1990’s, after more studies, reports and meetings, planners were ready to mount demonstration runs on four routes. From there, the idea has firmed up.
“Much as yesterday’s Silk Road, today’s Trans-Asian Railway aims to serve cultural exchanges and trade within Asia and between Asia and Europe,” the United Nations commission has said. “However, the network covers a much wider territory than its mythical predecessor and, needless to say, reaches a much bigger population.”
The existing rail lines between what the commission calls “railways of international importance” include those from Armenia to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as from Bangladesh and India to Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
From China, links connect with South Korea, North Korea, Mongolia and Russia, and they reach across Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Japan and the Philippines are listed as possible future connections.
Yet some glaring gaps remain in East Asia, home to the bulk of the proposed network.
Seven miles of track are needed between Thailand’s eastern border, at Aranyapratet, and the northwestern Cambodian towns of Sisophon and Poipet. A loan from the Asian Development Bank to help Cambodia’s railroads is scheduled to be applied from 2007 to 2009.
And among the network’s member countries, only China is considering a high-speed rail link, between Shanghai and Beijing.