Businessman backed by international financiers say project has government support but is still years away from launch
The diplomatic crisis between Thailand and Cambodia is threatening completion of the final link in the $15 billion Trans-Asian railway running from Kunming in southern China to Singapore, according to sources on both sides of the border.
At risk is a 6-kilometre track needed to connect Sisophon in Cambodia to Aranyaprathet in Thailand.
A source close to the Cambodian leadership told The Post: “I understand that [the Thais] don’t want to make the rail connection while the hostilities are ongoing.”
The link is for cross-border cargo transportation in the region and due for completion in 2015, and the line through Vietnam and Cambodia is seen as the central part of the project.
It provides the strategic link between all existing railway networks in the region that is crucial to the ambitious 5,300-kilometre Singapore-Kunming Rail Link, according to the Asian Development Bank’s project summary on the restructuring of the railway in Cambodia.
Caught up in spat
According to a senior management source at the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), negotiations are on hold due to the diplomatic row with Cambodia and the arrest in Cambodia of a Thai national accused of spying.
“If we cannot construct this 6-kilometre section, we will not be able to run the railway regionally as wished, as there will not be a completed regional railway in place. This is the only viable route in the region,” the source, who works on railway strategic planning, told The Sunday Bangkok Post.
Paul Power, an engineering adviser on the project, said it would be difficult to imagine the line would be constructed across Cambodia to Vietnam unless the link across the Thai border were completed.
Australia’s Toll Holdings has the contract to operate the lines from the Thai border to Phnom Penh and then south to the deepwater port at Sihanoukville.
China Railway Group is conducting a feasibility study to build a new line linking Phnom Penh with Vietnam on the Kingdom's eastern flank.
“This has big regional implications – the rest of the railway line just isn’t viable,” Power said. “It’s not viable from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh without the connection to Thailand.”
Earlier this month relations between Thailand and Cambodia ebbed to their lowest point in recent years when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen offered the ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra a home and a job, and refused an extradition request from Bangkok.
Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, fled his country and a two-year jail term for corruption in August last year.
Toll Holdings declined to comment Wednesday on the Thaksin issue.
Cambodia’s deputy transport minister Touch Chankosal said his government had not been informed of any decision regarding the link and remained upbeat about the railway’s prospects.
“But we will build our railroad link to Sisophon. It is not a problem for us,” he said.
He said initial talks with Thailand had been held, but that Cambodians had been told by Thailand that it was not yet ready to consider the proposal.
The Cambodian section is also seen as the integral part of the Greater Mekong Subregion southern economic corridor. The Cambodian government is concentrating on rehabilitating the 48-kilometre section linking Sisophon to Poipet. That work is expected to be completed in 2010.
Touch Chankosal also said Bangkok had much more to lose if the link were not completed, as Thai exports to Cambodia far exceed Thai imports.
“It’s not a big problem for us,” he said.
The Singapore-Kunming Rail Link was first proposed at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in 1995 and was considered the flagship project of ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation.
The route passes from China’s Kunming to Singapore, connecting through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It comprises new and abandoned routes that need serious rehabilitation work.