LAOS: The 418 km railway linking Vientiane and the Chinese border at Boten was formally opened for revenue services with a ceremony on December 3, marking the 46th anniversary of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

The government hopes that the line will help to stimulate the local economy, connecting the isolated country to international markets. However, it is initially limited to carrying freight, as passenger travel in the region has been restricted as part of coronavirus protection measures. A symbolic first passenger train is expected to run on December 4, but no date has been announced for the start of regular services.


The railway was inaugurated with a Buddhist blessing ceremony at Vientiane station attended by Prime Minister Pankham Viphavanh and other officials. President and People’s Revolutionary Party General Secretary Thongloun Sisoulith and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping participated through video links, reflecting the extensive Chinese involvement in promoting and financing the project.

The line has been developed and will be operated by Laos-China Railway Co, a joint venture between China Railway subsidiary Boten-Vientiane Railway, Beijing Investment Co, Yunnan Investment Co and the state-owned Lao National Railway which holds a 30% stake.


Running through a tropical mountain region, the 1 435 mm gauge railway has taken five years to construct at an estimated cost of US$5·9bn. The single-track line required 75 tunnels and 167 bridges, including 77 major structures. It has been designed for 160 km/h operation and is electrified at 25 kV 50 Hz. A special economic zone has been developed at Boten, close to Mohan in southern Yunnan.

The Laotian railway connects with a newly-completed Chinese line, creating a 1 024 km corridor from Kunming to the Laotian capital. The full route required 93 tunnels totalling 398 km. The Chinese section includes 15 bores more than 10 km long, of which the longest is the 17·5 km Anding tunnel. The corridor also has 136 major bridges with a combined length of 50 km. There are just 21 stations, of which 11 are in China and 10 in Laos.

Test running on the Laotian section of the route began during October, following the delivery of locomotives and rolling stock. The first of 17 Class HXD3CA electric locomotives ordered from CRRC Dalian in January were delivered to Vientiane on September 21.


The manufacturer has also supplied two 160 km/h trainsets to operate fast passenger services, with the first being delivered on October 16. Derived from the Fuxing China Standard EMU, these nine-car trains can each carry 720 passengers. They are branded Lancang, or million elephants, after the historic kingdom which once embraced the upper region of the Mekong River.

Once passenger services begin running, the railway is expected to help reinvigorate the local tourism industry. Although 4·7 million foreign tourists visited the country in 2019, that figure fell by 80% in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Lockdowns were introduced earlier this year, when Laos reported 70 000 infections in eight months across a population of 7 million inhabitants.

Financial concerns

The bulk of the funding for the railway project has been provided through China’s Belt & Road Initiative. However, concerns have already been raised about Laos’s ability to pay back its share of the estimated US$3·5bn of debt, with international commentators pointing to financial problems with BRI-backed railway schemes in Africa.

Under the terms of an agreement signed in 2016, each country committed to fund 40% of the construction costs through equity. Laos contributed US$250m from its state budget and borrowed another US$470m from China’s Export Import Bank, as well as a further US$1·06bn in debt financing. The loans carry a 2·3% interest rate with a 35-year maturity after a five-year grace period.


While Laos has enjoyed strong economic growth in recent years, World Bank figures revealed that pandemic-related problems saw the growth rate slump to 0·4% in 2020, reportedly the lowest level in three decades.

Nevertheless, the bank sees the railway as ‘a major investment that has the potential to stimulate the Lao economy’. Its regional infrastructure specialist Sombath Southivong told local media that it would ‘allow the country to take advantage of its geographical position at the heart of mainland southeast Asia’.

In the longer term, the line is envisaged as a link in a future network connecting China with Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia. In Thailand, Chinese firms are working on the first phase of a standard gauge route running north from Bangkok, but this is not expected to reach the Laos border at Nong Khai until at least 2028.

Laos was connected to Thailand in 2009, with the opening of a 3·5 km section of metre gauge line from Nong Khai to Thanaleng in the south of the country. However, there is still an 18 km gap between the two railheads.