02 March 2009

They said it would never happen ...

A 3.5 km rail link across the Mekong River, between Nong Khai in NE Thailand and Thanaleng, 20+ kilometres SE of the Lao capital Vientiane, will be open for public use on Thursday 5 March, following an inauguration ceremony to be presided over by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

The Friendship Bridge which carries the railway line was constructed as an Australian aid project in the early 1990s. It is just twenty years since then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, on a February 1989 visit to Bangkok, made an offer for Australia to undertake construction of this first bridge across the Mekong, at an estimated cost of $US 35 million. The idea of the bridge had been under consideration by the Mekong Committee since 1954, but the political and military situation in the region had always militated against it. With a joint Thai-Lao announcement in 1988 that they wanted to convert the region from a zone of war to a zone of peace, its time had come, and in offering to proceed with the bridge as an Australian aid project Bob Hawke saw this as an important political gesture, underpinning and expressing faith in the outbreak of peace, not just a modestly useful piece of economic infrastructure.

When the Thai and Lao Governments accepted the offer there was widespread scepticism within the Australian bureaucracy. The sceptics knew the project would become a “boondoggle” - the costs would blow out and the bridge would never be completed. And when the Lao Government expressed the wish that the bridge be constructed to a standard that would enable it to carry a standard Thai railway locomotive, they were sure that that would never happen.

It was an interesting project. As the river is an international boundary, the two ends of the bridge are in different countries, which raised interesting issues in relation to everyday matters such as workers and engineers moving around the site. In Thailand they drive on the left hand side of the road, in Laos on the right. Relations between Thailand and Laos were historically very difficult, but within the environment of this project they rapidly became remarkably cooperative.

The bridge was constructed on time and within budget. Construction formally commenced in November 1991, and the formal opening took place on 8 April 1994, presided over by the King of Thailand, the President of Laos, longtime Pathet Lao revolutionary Mr Nouhak Phoumsavan, and the Prime Minister of Australia, The Hon. Paul Keating, an interesting group of people to be seated together on the one dais.

Now the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle is falling into place. The Chairman of the State Railway of Thailand Board expects that the train service will carry 400-500 passengers per day on its twice daily return trip.

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