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Mekong railway project to come another step closer to realisation

Hanoi
A RAILWAY system connecting more than 300 million people who live around one of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong, will come a step closer today.

A plan for connecting regional rail lines is expected to be endorsed in Vietnam by ministers from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the Asian Development Bank.

It is “the first step in developing and implementing an integrated railway system in the sub-region,” said Kunio Senga, director general of ADB’s Southeast Asia department, in a foreword to the 25-page plan.

Except for a line that connects China and Vietnam, the six nations’ national railway systems do not link up, and Laos has no rail network at all.

The plan cites four possible ways of connecting the region, but it points to one as most viable. It would stretch from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and up to Nanning and Kunming, China, largely using existing lines or those already under construction.

The only missing link on that route is between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, it says, estimating a cost of US$1.09 billion for completion. This does not include an estimated $7 billion in additional funding needed to upgrade existing lines.

By 2025, an estimated 3.2 million passengers and 23 million tonnes of freight could take the route each year, the document says.

It calls for the region to be connected with at least one link by 2020.

Railway integration is a “huge” task, the success of which will lie in the efficiency of rules and procedures governing cross-border trade and transport, the plan says.

The goal coincides with an effort by Mekong nations to develop “economic corridors” around new road links, which would help to reduce poverty and would be complemented by railway connections, the ADB said.

“The [Greater Mekong Sub-region] railway network needs efficient interconnections with other modes, especially road and inland waterways, for maximum connectivity,” the plan for the rail network says.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region is an ADB-supported programme that began 18 years ago to promote development through closer economic links. It includes five Southeast Asian countries as well as China’s Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Between 1992 and 2006 the area grew at an average 8.3 percent annually, the rail document says.

The favourable growth trends along with increasing trade openness suggest “growing demand for transport of goods and increasing pressure on existing transport systems,” it says.

Infrastructure investment into the area over the past decade has reached about $11 billion, said Arjun Goswami, who heads the ADB’s regional cooperation and integration group.

He said the bank, whose mission is to reduce regional poverty, provided about one-third of that figure.

Given the high cost of projects such as the railway, public-private partnerships will be important, Goswami said in an interview.
“We’ve, I think, helped pioneer that in Cambodia,” he said.

Cambodia’s rail system is being rehabilitated at a cost of $140 million, financed by the ADB along with others including the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the rail document says.

Although they are growing fast, the Mekong nations – except for Thailand – still have the lowest per capita gross domestic product among the 10-member ASEAN bloc.

Though much has already been done to develop east-west and north-south road links through the Mekong countries, transport routes must be turned into “economic corridors” to promote investment and development in the periphery, not just the major cities, Goswami said. “And I think the opportunities that that will bring to smaller urban centres ... [are] very important for poverty reduction,” he said. AFP

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