Can the GMS connect rail by 2020?


LUANG PRABANG, 7 June 2017: Rail systems fail to figure in the Mekong Region travel picture, but that might change over the next 10 years as plans to build new lines and link existing rail networks take shape in the six-country region.

A report on the Greater Mekong Subregion website challenges readers. “Imagine boarding the overnight sleeper train in Ho Chi Minh City and waking up in Bangkok, or in Yangon a few days later.”

This is not a remotely possible today in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), but officials and executives of the Asian Development Bank believe that could change a dream into reality by 2020.

Credit Asian Development Bank

“Rail connections within the GMS could be a game changer in terms of intra- and inter-regional trade and transport for Southeast Asia, reducing travel time and cost while increasing reliability and volume of transport,” said Jamie Leather, principal transport specialist at ADB and lead officer in charge of the Greater Mekong Railway Association GMRA.

Leaders of the GMS countries in recent years have noted that rail is the most efficient means transport for the region. This sentiment reflects a shift from road to rail at the policy making level.

The GMS has always placed a heavy focus on development of roads and the dominance of low-cost airline travel is the key driver pushing tourist arrival figures up in all Mekong Region countries. Construction of roads and bridges between GMS countries is another priority, but there are growing voices that aviation and road transport are not environmentally sustainable. There should be alternatives and building rail links across GMS borders is one of them.

The challenge is how to link systems that are do not even share the same rail gauge and are at different levels of development. The Mekong region is made up of six countries; Cambodia, China (Yunnan and Guang Xi provinces) Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. They all have their own rail systems, but standards and levels of comfort low. (Laos has just one short line from its capital to the border with Thailand, but China is investing in a new railway north to south; Luang Namtha to Vientiane.)

The challenge these countries now face is how to connect cross-border rail traffic and how to finance the huge investment.

Mekong Region governments view an investment in rail as an opportunity to promote subregional trade, address climate change, and protect against fluctuating fuel costs.

The Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Programme Strategic Framework, 2012 to 2022 stressed the importance of ensuring that all countries in the subregion are connected to the GMS rail network by 2020.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) that authored the report and offered assistance dating back to 2010 when it funded a technical assistance project to assess the requirements. Since then it has led the campaign for regional rail connectivity.

One of the outcomes was the formation of the Greater Mekong Railway Association (GMRA) to further railway expansion in the region. The six GMS countries make up the core members.