Sat, Nov 11, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Dream of railway crossing Asia still faces obstacles


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 connections 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 UN in 1960, was set to come a step closer to reality yesterday with the signing of an agreement to implement what has been called the "Iron Silk Road."

Representatives from about 40 countries were participating in the two-day Ministerial Conference on Transport, sponsored by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), the UN's Bangkok-based regional office.

The Trans-Asian Railway Network, which consists of 81,000km of track through more than two dozen Asian countries, follows through on a similar UN-sponsored road program.

Though signing the agreement is a big step, much work remains to be done to make the dream a reality.

The pact sets out a framework for countries to coordinate the development of important routes, and a working group will serve as a forum for policy makers and rail managers to work out details -- especially financing -- Kim said in a statement last month.

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 UN map of the proposed network includes the Korean Peninsula. A plan by the divided North and South to restore rail links severed by the Korean War remains hostage to political tensions, however.

North Korea, a member country of the network, chose not to send a delegation to the international conference amid ongoing tensions over its nuclear program.

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