BUSAN, South Korea (AP) - A total of 18 nations, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, Russia, South Korea and Turkey, signed a rail agreement Friday evoking the trade caravans that long ago linked Asia with Europe.
For decades, officials have dreamed of a railway network spanning Asia, linking cities as diverse as Kuala Lumpur and Kabul, or Yangon and Yerevan.
Greater and improved connections among existing rail networks would bring remote inland regions and landlocked countries closer to vibrant coastal cities and ports, boosting commerce along the paths of ancient trade routes.
The Trans-Asian Railway Network, first conceived by the United Nations in 1960, came a step closer Friday with the signing of an agreement to implement what has been dubbed the “Iron Silk Road”.
Representatives from about 40 countries were participating in a two-day Ministerial Conference on Transport, sponsored by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the U.N.’s Bangkok-based regional office.
The network, which comprises 81,000 kilometers (50,000 miles) of track through 28 countries, is already a reality in part and follows through on a similar U.N.-sponsored road program.
The Asian Highway Network is a 141,000-kilometer (87,500-mile) web of highways and ferry routes connecting Asia with Europe. An agreement on the network was signed in 2004 and came into effect last year.
“It now rests with today’s transport planners to advance action on this vision,” Kim Hak-su, a U.N. under secretary-general and executive secretary of UNESCAP, said at the signing ceremony.
“The northern corridor, TSR, is existing and operational,” he said, referring to the Trans-Siberian Railway, linking Russia’s Pacific seaport of Vladivostok with Moscow. Another line from China also links with it via Mongolia.
He said that only 6,500 kilometers (4,030 miles) of track need to be connected, mostly in poorer regions in the network’s southern corridor, which includes countries in Southeast Asia.
“It may cost a lot of money to construct this missing link,” Kim said, without elaborating.
One study by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations suggested that about US$2.5 billion would be needed in that region just to fill in gaps between train networks of various countries.
“On this one, to get to the reality it’s going to take a lot of work,” said Steven Yang, an executive with Rotem Co., a South Korean railway systems supplier, with projects in 34 countries including Bangladesh, Iran, Nigeria, Brazil and the United States.
“The first obstacle they are going to have is rail gauge,” Yang, participating in a transport and logistics exhibition in conjunction with the ministers’ meeting, said, referring to variations in track width among different countries.
Myanmar, one of the countries that supports the agreement but which chose not to sign, cited “financial constraints” in upgrading its existing rail system in line with required technical specifications, Maj. Gen Aung Min, the Southeast Asian nation's rail minister, said in an address to the conference.
The South Korean city of Busan, one of the world’s biggest container ports and the host of the conference, illustrates some of the lingering political difficulties of forging greater continental rail links.
A U.N. map of the proposed network includes the Korean peninsula. However, a plan by North and South Korea to restore rail links severed by the Korean War remains hostage to political tensions.
North Korea, a member country of the network, didn’t send a delegation to the conference amid ongoing tensions over its nuclear program.
Geographically isolated countries in particular see benefits of forging more and better rail links.
Landlocked Armenia, which currently has only one operational outside rail connection to a seaport in Georgia, hopes greater access will reduce the cost of moving goods overland, said Hrant Beglarian, first deputy minister of transport and communication.
“Any kind of regional project which is related to cooperation in the field of transport is very important for us,” he said.