When Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visits Beijing, on the agenda is the joint development of two rail lines in Thailand which could eventually link the two countries. The two lines are part of China’s efforts to have a Trans-Asian railway rolled out in the distant future. The connection starts in Kunming in China and passes through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and eventually Singapore.
Growing international trade calls for more efficient means of transport.
The concept of “Trans-Asian Railway” was first raised in the 1960s, but was not pushed along until 2006, when 18 countries in Asia signed the “inter-governmental agreement” on building such a network.
The project falls under the framework of the UN economic and social commission for the Asia-Pacific region. 37 countries will be connected by four railway lines running through Asia with a total length of 81,000 kilometers.
Professor Wu Jianhong from Beijing Jiaotong University has been studying this massive project for many years, he calls this the new “Silk Road on Rail”.
“The Trans-Asian railway is an important means of connection for countries in Asia, especially for those which are land-locked. After completion, this network will play an important role in promoting trade and connection between ports in East Asia and the markets in Central and Western Asia, so balancing the Asian economy as a whole,” Professor Wu said.
The benefits can be seen from those lines already in operation.
In 1992, China built the second Eurasia Continental Bridge stretching from its eastern port city Lianyungang to Alataw Pass and Urumqi in its northwestern region of Xinjiang.
The freight volume jumped from 2 million tons in 1996 to 16 million tons in 2012; the number of containers rose ten-fold from 20,000 to over 200,000.
But since so many countries are involved in the massive Trans-Asian network, the road ahead won’t be as straight forward.
“There are many challenges for building this network, such as political will, foreign relations, technical standards as well as financial support, all these factors could become barriers. So scientific studies on the economic and financial problems are needed. There should also be an inter-governmental framework to ensure a smooth execution of the project and safe operation after completion,” Professor Wu said.
For all these challenges, progress IS being made step by step.
In Yunnan province, three lines are under construction to link China with ASEAN countries. These all start from Kunming and end at Singapore city, while running through the capital cities of five other ASEAN countries.
Once completed they will serve as major channels, facilitating cross border freight in East Asia.