An agreement between Thailand and China on the construction of a new rail line linking the two countries has put the spotlight on Laos, the country this proposed railway would pass through.
Thailand and China has agreed to cooperate on building a new rail line, which would eventually connect Southern China with Bangkok. This initiative has put the spotlight on Laos, the country this proposed railway would pass through.
Laos’ rail development is still relatively small, but the project has huge economic potential for the region. Since starting its operations in 2009, Laos’ 3.5-kilometre-long railroad has mostly ferried tourists between Thailand’s border town of Nongkhai and Thanaleng station, on the outskirts of Vientiane.
Thanaleng station, Laos’ first and only railway station, is currently being expanded to accommodate more traffic. The government hopes that by 2015, the station can handle more passengers and cargoes coming over from Thailand.
There are also plans for the construction of two larger rail lines in the near future. “The first line will link the north with the south and the second line will link the east with to the west,” said Somsana Ratsaphong, director-general of Lao Railways. “The aim is to link Laos to seaports via rail, transforming this land-locked country into a land-linked one.”
Laos’ burgeoning rail development will also have regional implications. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has approved the building of a new line, connecting the Thai-Laos border area with Bangkok and further to the deep seaport in eastern Thailand by 2022.
This new line could eventually connect with China. “We see this as an investment for the future, connecting us with the world,” said Thai Permanent Secretary for Transport Soithip Trisuddhi. “The Chinese will have a rail line to Europe. If we build this then we will be linked with China through Laos. We would also be connecting with the standard gauge line currently being developed in Malaysia and Singapore.”
Experts say the Thai economy will gain from greater regional rail connectivity, but also points out that Laos could reap the benefits as well. “China and Thailand should design this project so that the Lao people can benefit,” said Yasushi Negishi, Thailand’s country director at the Asian Development Bank. “For instance, Laos has many good tourist destinations and Laos has many agricultural products that they can export to neighbouring countries”
Rail transport has only played a minor role in the economic development of Laos. But with neighbouring countries focused on forging a regional network, developing rail in Laos has become a strategic focal point for both ASEAN and China.