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NEWS UPDATES 21 August 2010

Plan for Mekong area rail link approved

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A "bold" plan for a railway system connecting more than 300 million people who live around the Mekong River was approved Friday, officials said.

Ministers from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam adopted the plan.

The six nations' national railway systems do not link up except for a line that connects China and Vietnam, and Laos has no rail network at all.

The plan cites four possible ways of connecting the railways but it says the most viable route would stretch from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, then Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and finally up to Nanning and Kunming, largely using existing lines or those already under construction.

"We think it's realistic to do one of the routes by 2020," said Lawrence Greenwood, a vice-president with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

"Having said that, it is certainly bold and ambitious," he said.

The only missing link on that route would be between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, the 25-page railway plan says, estimating a cost of US$1.09 billion.This does not include roughly US$7 billion US dollars in additional funding needed to upgrade the existing lines.

By 2025, an estimated 3.2 million passengers and 23 million tonnes of freight are forecast for the completed route, the document says.

The goal coincides with an effort by Mekong nations to develop "economic corridors" around new road links, which would help to reduce poverty and would be complemented by railway connections, the ADB said.

Creating the corridors of investment and development will require a smoothing of procedures for cross-border transport and trade, the ministers said in a joint statement.

Business leaders and other experts have said there are still too many bureaucratic hurdles to a free flow of regional goods.

Greenwood said ministers at the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) conference "very importantly" agreed on a plan to smooth cross-border movement, which is supported by six million dollars in funding from Australia.

GMS is an ADB-supported programme that began 18 years ago to promote development through closer economic links between Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, as well as China's Yunnan province and the Chinese Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Although they are growing fast, the Mekong nations -- except for Thailand -- have the lowest per capita gross domestic product among the 10 Asean members.

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