China-Lao rail gathers steam

LUANG PRABANG, 7 June 2017: A fast rail line from China to Laos will run straight through Luang Prabang, Lao PDR’s famed World Heritage town, when it opens December 2021.

Officials confirmed late last month that the construction of the Laos-China railway is gathering steam as teams bore and drill foundations at 75 tunnel and 167 bridge locations on a route that will stretch 414 km from end-to-end.

The line crosses the China-Lao border with major rail stations planned for Luang Namtha, 360 km northeast of Lao capital, Luang Prabang and Vientiane where it will eventually merge with a line crossing into Thailand at Nong Khai.

Chinese officials said the railway will be designed for electrified  trains travelling at 160 km per hour (passenger trains), or 120 km per hour for freight trains.

Construction of the single 1.435 metre gauge track will take five years to build at a cost of USD5.8 billion, with 70% funded by Chinese investment and the balance by  Laos.

The Lao government has prioritised railway development to transform the country from landlocked to a land-linked country with a system that is environmentally friendly and more efficient than highways in the long-term.

The project has its roots in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the two countries in 2010, but work did not start in earnest until 2016.

Officials say it will boost trade and tourism, but there are concerns that once the railway is operational, the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang could be at risk from commercial overdevelopment, trade and a boom in low-cost travel from China.

Meanwhile Laos and Vietnam assigned Korea International Co-operation Agency (KOICA), to conduct a feasibility study on a 500- km  railway that would link Vientiane to Vung Ang industrial zone in Vietnam.

The agreement to build the railway to connect Vientiane and Vung Ang Zone, and a four-lane highway connecting Vientiane and Hanoi, was signed in 2015.

Both countries stand to benefit. Laos will have access to Vietnam’s ports reducing its reliance on Thailand, and  Vietnam will have access through Laos to import and export goods.

Late last month, the Lao government approved the 113.7 km Vientiane-Vang Vieng expressway project, which is the first part of the planned Vientiane-Boten expressway that will ultimately link the Lao capital with northern Luang Namtha province that shares a border with China.

This week, bids opened for the four-lane Vientiane-Pakse expressway which will be built in four sections covering  a distance of 585 km. Once open in 2022 it will cut the trip distance by 115 km when compared to Highway 13.

Pakse is the capital of the southernmost Champassak province that borders Cambodia.


  1. I didn’t know that there was a plan to build an expressway from Vientiane to Boten, much less that the first section has already been approved. I have heard there would be an upgrading of the road between Vientiane and Vang Vieng to “international standards” involving the duplication of the Vientiane to Phonhong sector (currently 80km) to 4 lanes while the remaining section between Phonhong and Vang Vieng would continue to be 2 lanes. Perhaps the term “expressway” means something else in Laos? Assuming they are really talking about an actual limited access high-speed highway, let’s compare this to neighboring Thailand. The Thai highways department is currently constructing 3 expressways linking Bangkok with other provinces, the longest in length being the Bang Pa-in to Nakorn Ratchasima expressway at 196km in length, if Laos were to get it’s act together and start construction of these 2 proposed expressways out of Vientiane, it could become rather embarrassing for more developed Thailand if it doesn’t manage to catch up in time. The blueprint for Thailand’s expressway network calls for expressways linking Bangkok with Chiang Mai/Mae Sai; Bangkok and Nong Khai; Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani and Bangkok and Sadao on the Malaysian border as well as a second ring road surrounding the city. I wonder how many decades it will take before this master plan is realized though – it’s only been 20 years since it was first proposed and in that time just 2 expressways have been built – the Bangkok-Chonburi-Pattaya motorway (the latter section between Chonburi and Pattaya has only recently been upgraded to expressway standards and is currently being extended to Mapthaphut port in Rayong) and only in the past year or so has work started on this extension, along with the expressway to Korat and a third expressway linking Bang Yai with Kanchanaburi (96km).

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