23 November 2010

Fast rail for Laos?

One of the more interesting assignments of my public service career was to chair from 1988-91 the tri-national Australian-Thai-Lao steering committee which negotiated the agreements for the construction of the first bridge over the Mekong River, from Nong Khai to Vientiane, and which oversighted the construction.

Some recollections from that assignment will be the subject of a later post, but one aspect deserves a mention now.

One of the strong wishes expressed by the Lao authorities when we got down to detailed discussion of the project was that the bridge should be wide enough and strong enough to carry a standard Thai railway locomotive, so that in the fullness of time an extension to the Thai railway system could be built through to Vientiane.

The sceptics in Canberra laughed; the bridge itself was going to be a failure, and there was no possibility that it would ever carry trains. Laos would never have a railway line.

The Lao request seemed reasonable enough to me, and we did build the bridge to the appropriate specificiation.

So it was with considerable satisfaction that I learned in March last year that the new service was to be inaugurated on 5 March 2009 (see They said it would never happen ...)  

Against that background of scepticism it was with considerable interest that I read the article High-speed rail between Yunnan and Myanmar on the agenda in China Business News, 22 November 2010 (access the full report here). It begins:

Construction of a high-speed rail link between Yunnan province and neighboring Myanmar, part of a project to upgrade transport connections with Southeast Asian nations, will start in about two months, a top rail expert said.

The line, from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, will be 1,920 kilometers long, said Wang Mengshu, an academic of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Trains will run at about 170-200 km/h once it is completed, he added.

Wang, who is also a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, has been involved in Chinese high-speed rail projects from the outset.

Wang told China Daily that a high-speed rail connection between southwestern China and Cambodia is also under discussion. And an exploratory survey for another route that would link Yunnan and Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is under way.

The three new rail connections being developed, along with another linking China and Vietnam, will form a network that is likely to be completed within 10 years, Wang said.

“The project, which aims to boost cooperation between China and Southeast Asian nations, will greatly enhance the economic development of China’s western regions,” said Wang.

On this basis I would be prepared to wager a good bottle of red that Laos, one of the poorest countries in the world, and characterised by rugged terrain, will have high speed rail before Australia does. We have been talking about it for twenty five years and will still be talking about it in twenty five years’ time.

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