This month, an intergovernmental conference in Bangkok is due to finalise a draft agreement establishing the Trans-Asian Railway network, planned as a catalyst for railway development across Asia

Pierre Chartier
Transport & Tourism Division
United Nations Economic & Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific

Outpacing Europe and North America, economic growth in Asia is boosting international trade to unprecedented levels.

UNESCAP predicts that worldwide maritime container traffic will reach 123 million TEU by 2011, representing an average growth of 6·3% per annum. Intra-Asian trade is expected to more than double from 12·5 million TEU to 30·1 million TEU by 2011, a growth rate of 7·6% per annum. Traffic to Europe and North America is also increasing rapidly (Table I).

Table I. Forecast Asian maritime container traffic (million TEU)
Year 1999 2011
World total 59·0 123·0
Intra-Asia 12·5 30·1
Asia to Europe 5·3 12·9
Europe to Asia 4·2 10·3
Asia to North America 6·8 13·1
North America to Asia 4·6 8·3

Recognising the pressure this is placing on transport, and noting that many countries do not have the financial capacity to develop new infrastructure, UNESCAP's Transport & Tourism Division launched the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development project in 1992. This is helping countries to identify rail routes which can be connected into an international network and which are capable of bringing economic growth to hinterlands. Routes complying with one or more of the criteria (Table II) were identified in collaboration with the countries concerned, resulting in the Trans-Asian Railway Network.

UNESCAP is actively involved in managing globalisation and poverty reduction, areas where the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and Japan Bank for International Co-operation have also emphasised the positive role that a country's transport infrastructure can play.

The past 20 years have brought dramatic political and economic changes. The return of peace to southeast Asia, the emergence of newly-independent countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and the adoption of outward-looking and market-oriented economic reform in many countries have had a profound impact in the region. The worldwide consequences are obvious to all, as yesterday's political barriers are replaced by economic groupings through which countries aim to improve living standards.

International routes

UNESCAP is now working to formalise the Trans-Asian Railway Network*, establishing a mechanism to find synergies between national projects and ensure a co-ordinated approach.

A range of initiatives testify to the relevance of Asia's railways in an era of trade liberalisation and e-commerce. There are 12 landlocked countries in Asia, often thousands of kilometres from a port. Distances are on a scale at which railways find full economic justification, both domestically and internationally. Traffic continues to grow unabated, and rail is increasingly recognised as safe and environmentally-friendly.

Table II. Criteria for inclusion in the Trans-Asian Railway Network
  • Capital-to-capital links
  • Connections to main industrial and agricultural centres
  • Connections to major sea and river ports
  • Connections to major container and freight terminals

In July 1991 the Chinese and Kazakh rail networks were linked at Dostyk, giving the Central Asian Republics access to the Pacific. The recently-opened Mashhad - Bafgh line in the Islamic Republic of Iran (RG 6.05 p319) provides access to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Efforts are also focusing on developing existing lines, as illustrated by the growing use of the Trans-Siberian route between northeast Asia and Europe, and the container landbridge between Malaysia and Thailand which has recorded traffic growth of over 300% since its launch in June 1999.

Plans for a rail connection between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Republic of Korea have made progress in the past four years, and the railways of Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia are collaborating in the development of a north-south corridor that will eventually connect northern Europe to the Gulf port of Bandar Abbas for trade with southern Asia.

Network agreement

In April 2004, the 60th Session of the UNESCAP Commission of ministers and senior government officials endorsed the development of an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Trans-Asian Railway Network. Assisted by the Office of Legal Affairs in New York, Unescap's Transport & Tourism Division launched the first round of negotiations in November 2004.

The resulting draft Intergovernmental Agreement is now being reviewed by each subregional group of countries, in collaboration with other intergovernmental organisations. Their recommendations will be incorporated into a final draft for discussion at the Intergovernmental Meeting in Bangkok later this month. The Agreement will then be presented at the 62nd Session of the Commission, with a signing ceremony to be held at the Ministerial Conference on Transport in 2006. TARmap-large.jpg

The Intergovernmental Agreement is expected to play a catalytic role in the construction and upgrading of railway lines in Asia. A working group will meet every two years as a forum where policy-makers and railway managers can define a common vision, agree joint programmes and benchmark progress.

Formalisation of the Trans-Asian Railway Network constitutes one step towards the identification of a trans-continental, integrated, international, intermodal network mandated by the Ministerial Conference on Infrastructure held in Seoul in November 2001. A similar agreement for the Asian Highway network came into force on July 4 this year. These agreements provide a solid basis for a regional approach to transport development, ushering in a new era of co-operation and creating a partnership for regional integration.