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World's Greatest Railway Bazaar Looks for Green Light in 1999

Transport: Engineers are filling the gaps in a rail line that will link Western Europe with Asia's farthest extreme. A test run is planned for 1999.


BANGKOK — One of the world's longest train rides--a 9,300-mile trek from Singapore to Scotland--is getting closer.

Planners and engineers are cobbling together the last links of a vast railway network that will link the far reaches of Asia and on to Europe.

About 1,200 miles of rails remain to be laid in Asia, and a railway tunnel must be dug under the Bosporus Straits linking the European and Asian parts of Turkey before the four-decades-old dream becomes reality.

"The network should be great for trade, and tourists will be able to travel through such remote, beautiful countries," said Arbind Ghose, a railway expert in India. "The gaps are now small, and the funds will come. The projects are all bankable."

When complete, the envisioned "Trans-Asian Railway" will encompass two major east-west flows, both with rail links to Southeast Asia.

The northern corridor will run from the Korean peninsula to Moscow and thereby to the eastern gates of Europe. A southern one will run from Bangladesh through the Indian subcontinent and Iran and on to Europe's southeastern entryway--Istanbul and the Bosporus Straits.

Branch lines are to move travelers and freight to such landlocked countries as Afghanistan, Laos and Nepal. Access to Central Asia will be greatly improved.

The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific says burgeoning trade will spur completion of the network. In Asia, trade is growing an average of 13% a year, compared to 9% for the rest of the world.

The project was first discussed at the U.N. commission in 1960, but it has been derailed by problems ranging from war in Iran to the long self-imposed isolation of Myanmar.

Obstacles remain. Malaysian railway consultants had to halt work in Cambodia because of the recent bloody coup. But, overall, Asia has rarely been more peaceful, or more bent on steaming ahead with modernization. A trans-Asia railroad is high on the agendas of many regional meetings.

"Things are getting exciting," said M. Rahmmatulla, the commission's lead official for the rail project.

The focus is on filling key gaps, including 341 miles inside Iran, two small sections in Cambodia and 870 miles that would link Thailand and Bangladesh through Myanmar, which finally signed on for the project last year.

One major obstacle is the tense standoff between North and South Korea, which leaves a 12-mile gap that would cross the demilitarized zone separating the enemies.

Another problem is that the nations of Asia use five different track gauges, meaning trains cannot traverse the whole route.

But Rahmmatulla said the differing gauges will not significantly slow the movement of goods, because modern machines permit quick movement of cargo containers between trains.

More problematic is getting everyone to sign seven major international conventions designed to ensure quick, cost-effective movement across frontiers, he said in an interview.

To date, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea and Vietnam have signed none.

U.N. studies say that freight, rather than people, will pay for the network and that transport by train across Asia could be cheaper than shipping by sea.

A test run, scheduled for 1999, hopes to prove it will be more cost effective to move goods along the northern corridor from Pacific ports to Europe if the train can average 30 mph and be subject to a single tariff. The train journey would take 28 days, as opposed to 35 by sea.

Proponents also argue that railways are easier on the environment and more energy efficient than highway and air traffic.

The Sustainable Transport Action Network for Asia and the Pacific, a group based in Malaysia, says rail lines through sensitive, remote areas are much less likely than roads to trigger over-rapid modernization, deforestation and other unwanted development.

Whatever the hurdles, planners say that within five to 10 years rail buffs should be able to savor a veritable Asian railway bazaar.

Among the possible itineraries:

* Singapore to Bangkok, Thailand, on the already running luxury Eastern & Oriental. Then either through Laos (yet to have a single foot of track) to southern China or across Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Vietnam, and China. From China on the classic Trans-Siberian to Moscow, with options through Central Asia available.

* Across the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, then by railway ferry to Singapore. From Thailand a journey through areas of Myanmar rarely seen by Westerners since World War II. Then Bangladesh, the plains of India and on to Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, with its rail links to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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