ASIA: China's influence is starting to make itself felt in the quickening pace of railway planning across southeast Asia, although precise route alignments and costs remain unclear.

Rail links to both Laos and Myanmar are now being firmly backed by Beijing. New lines into both countries would be built from Kunming, the regional capital of Yunnan province. The proposed main line to Laos is the more advanced option - Laotian Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad confirmed at the UIC High Speed Congress on Dec­ember 8 that civil works would begin this year for completion by 2014, although he did not elaborate on the technical parameters or the gauge of the proposed railway.

Talks on the proposed 1920 km cross-border line to Yangôn are due to begin this month, according to reports quoting Wang Mengshu, a railway specialist at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University. 'The project, which aims to boost co-operation between China and southeast Asian nations, will greatly enhance the economic development of China's western regions', Wang told state media. Myanmar has plans to build a deep-water port at Dawei, although at present this is not specifically mentioned under the Chinese plan.

'What bothers me is that these articles never mention cost', Pierre Chartier, Economic Affairs Officer of Unescap's Transport Infrastructure Section told Railway Gazette. 'I also never see mentioned whether these lines will be primarily for passengers or freight', he added.

Further south, Chinese contractors have already updated a 2005 feasibility study for a 257 km line between Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Loc Ninh in Vietnam; China has reportedly offered US$600m to fund its construction by 2015, bridging one of the largest rail gaps between Kunming and Singapore.