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Laos to pursue high-speed railway

Unfazed by China's exit, Vientiane decides to go it alone with $7-bn project in interest of its national development



The Lao government will proceed with the construction of a US$7 billion Laos-China high-speed railway even though Beijing has withdrawn from the joint venture.

At an extraordinary session on Friday, National Assembly members decided to approve the project because it is essential for national development at a time when economic integration is viewed as the future of the region.

Laos and China had previously planned to jointly undertake the railway project, which would connect Vientiane with the Laos-China border in Luang Namtha province.

However, the project was delayed when the Chinese construction firm pulled out because they believed the project would not be profitable enough.

Laos has now decided to assume sole ownership of the project, as it believes that a land link is central to the future of the nation's development. The railway is now set to go ahead without any other direct stakeholders, but will be financed by a loan from China.

Laos Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, reporting on the project to the National Assembly yesterday, stressed how important the railway was in terms of turning Laos into a land link within the region, attracting more foreign investment, and boosting economic growth.

Somsavat said the EXIM Bank of China would provide a loan to cover the cost of construction, which is considerable given the scale of the project.

A ground-breaking ceremony is expected to take place at the 9th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit on November 5-6 when top-ranking leaders from both Laos and China will be present.

The deputy PM said the railway will be about 420km long, with a standard gauge track of 1.435 metres. The cost of construction is estimated at about 44.25 billion yuan (about US$7 billion). A 50-metre wide section of land will be cleared along the length of the railway on either side, and fenced off for security reasons.

At tunnels, however, the width of the land cleared will extend to 100 metres, while at major train stations parcels of land measuring 3-kilometres by 250 metres will be allocated for development.

In the original project agreement, passenger trains running at speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour were planned, but now the Lao government has decided to reduce the speed to 160kph for safety reasons, partly due to the hilly terrain. Goods trains, meanwhile, will travel at a maximum speed of 120 kph.

Somsavat said passenger trains might be able to reach a speed of 200km per hour between Vientiane and Vangvieng where the land is relatively flat, but more studies are needed. The railway will be designed along similar lines to existing projects in China, which has considerable experience in building high-speed rail links.

The railway will require 76 tunnels and 154 bridges, including two bridges across the Mekong River. The tunnels and bridges alone represent more than 60 per cent of the total route, such is the mountainous nature of northern Laos. The project will include 31 stations in all, but the government plans to open 20 stations initially and the rest later on.

There will be seven major stations along the route, of which two will be in Vientiane. From there, the railway will run north to China, stopping at Phonhong and Vangvieng districts in Vientiane province, before continuing on to Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, Luang Namtha and the Chinese border.


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