Asian transport ministers meeting in South Korea this week will take a major step towards making a decades-old dream a reality -- integrating the entire continent into a single rail network.
Transport ministers and officials from 43 countries will gather in the port city of Busan starting today for this year's ministerial conference on transport organized by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
The highlight of the six-day conference will be Friday's signing of the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) -- more poetically known as the "Iron Silk Road."
The 81,000km network, first mooted by the UN in 1960, would link capitals, ports and industrial hubs across 28 Asian countries all the way to Europe.
By signing, Asian states will "demonstrate their commitment to working together" on the mammoth project, said Barry Cable, director of UNESCAP's Transport and Tourism Division.
"We expect this will trigger new development in the railway sector both in terms of increasing capacity and in terms of increasing connectivity," he said.
Cable said such an international commitment would make it easier for countries to attract finance for railways from international banks.
"The agreement lays a framework for coordinated development of internationally important rail routes," UNESCAP chief Kim Hak-su said in a statement.
Tardy progress over the past five decades indicates the challenges ahead, despite Friday's scheduled signing. The Cold War, a major obstacle, is over but Asia has its fair share of civil conflicts and tensions.
Other problems include switching between different-gauge tracks, where to stop, how to handle sometimes tricky quarantine and immigration paperwork, and how to safely ferry cargo and people across many borders.
But fast-growing Asia, home to 60 percent of the world's population and generating 26 percent of the world's GDP, deserves better transport, Kim said.
"Asia's demand for efficient transport is greater than at any time in its history," he said.
The Asian continent boasts 13 of the world's top 20 container seaports.
But it has fewer than 100 "dry ports" -- inland container depots -- while Europe has 200 and the US has 370.
The Bangkok-based UN agency believes that the creating of more "ports of international importance" along the Trans-Asian Railway will reduce seaport congestion and transport expenses, as well as promoting trade and employment.
"This could actually stimulate more economic growth of the countries and share the benefits of globalization with a wider part of the community," Cable said, citing uneven development between coastal and inland areas.
Twelve of the world's 30 landlocked countries are in Asia, he said.
The TAR network would connect the vast existing railway lines across Asia with Russia and Mongolia in the north, Malaysia and the Philippines in the south, South Korea in the east and Iran and Turkey in the west.
At the Busan conference, delegates will also issue two other declarations -- one on the direction of regional transport development in the next five years and the other on road safety.
UNESCAP estimates that last year 440,000 people died and at least 2 million were injured on Asia-Pacific roads.
This is around half of the world's fatalities, even though only one-fifth of the world's motor vehicles are registered in the region.