All aboard the Trans-Asian Railway
BANGKOK - A train journey from Singapore to Shanghai may not be the stuff of dreams anymore. So too the prospect of travel by rail from Seoul to Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Such a possibility, which would recreate - over some stretches - the once famed Silk Road, took a step closer on June 18 when an inter-governmental agreement to build the Trans-Asian Railway Network (TARN) came into force.
This early milestone towards establishing the TARN comes after China in March joined seven other countries that have ratified the inter-governmental agreement. The seven other countries are Cambodia, India, Mongolia, South Korea, Russia, Tajikistan and Thailand.
The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a Bangkok-based regional United Nations body, is winning praise for helping to give shape to a plan that has the primary aim to promote intra-regional trade.
"[The agreement] finally lays the groundwork after the launch of the project - led by ESCAP half a century ago - in the 1960s," said Choi Jang-hyun, South Korea's vice minister of land, transport and maritime affairs. "This agreement will provide the institutional foundation for this historic project."
"The timing of this agreement is particularly significant as leaders from our region promote intra-regional trade to stimulate economic recovery," said Noeleen Heyzer, executive secretary of ESCAP. "Rail, in particular, provides an opportunity to transport goods in a more cost effective manner."
The hope of boosting cooperation comes at a time when trade between countries inside the Asia-Pacific region is significantly lower than the trade volume between this region and the rest of the world.
Heyzer drew attention to this trend during the official ceremony in Bangkok to mark the coming into force of the TARN agreement. "The Asia-Pacific region is more economically integrated with the rest of the world than it is with itself," she said. "Intra-regional trade among developing countries in our region currently accounts for only 37% of exports in comparison with NAFTA [North America Free Trade Agreement] at 51% and the EU [European Union] at 68%."
The blueprint for the continent-wide railway network traces tracks that span 114,000 kilometers to link 28 countries. Of that, 106,000 kilometers of tracks already exist in the countries that - in addition to the eight who have ratified the agreement - also include Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Iran, Laos, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
But a crucial 8,300 kilometers of tracks are missing. The bill for these portions of rail - in Myanmar, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia and Laos - is close to US$25 billion, ESCAP estimates.
Upgrading exiting tracks to facilitate the overland shipping of goods in 20-foot-long containers will also add to the TARN's bill, adds ESCAP.
The Asian rail link is expected to give an economic lift to the 12 landlocked countries in the region. Some of these countries, like Laos, are home to people living in absolute poverty - who, in Asia as a whole, currently number some 950 million people.
As important are the prospects of developing "dry ports" in the interior of each country linked through the TARN, said Barry Cable, director of ESCAP's transport and tourism division. "These dry ports will help to replicate the same type of development that has taken place in seaport areas."
The emergence of "dry ports" in provincial areas is expected to create "new economies of scale" and to help to reduce gaps between the poorer provincial economies and the robust economies that have emerged over long years of development in and around seaport areas.
"The further away you move from the coastal areas [the more] you see development drop off," said Cable. "The coastal areas have developed more because of access to international sea routes and international markets."
"Railway communication in the whole of South Asia is one of the main means of communications. The plan to develop dry ports will add to this importance," Kamal Mustafa, the Bangladesh ambassador to Thailand, told Inter Press Service (IPS). "It will help boost the inland economies."
Yet such plans for overland transport of goods across national boundaries face challenges that will test regional governments' commitment to the venture. Primary among these are customs procedures that have still to be ironed out and, for travelers, the hassles faced at immigration counters.
Similar challenges also dog another transportation link - the Asian Highway Network (AHN) - that was given the green light when governments ratified an international agreement in July 2005 to enable the easier movement of goods between 32 Asian countries, spanning Japan at one end and Turkey on the other.
The AHN is expected to be 141,000 kilometers once it is finished - enabling trucks to ferry containers laden with goods. The idea for building the AHN was first floated in 1959.
But the reason that both the Asian road and rail networks have made little headway till now stems from the distrust between countries built up during the decades of the Cold War.
"We live in changed times," an Asian diplomat who chose not to be identified told IPS. "This railway network, once completed, should reflect that. It will also bring the region much more closer together."