A 50-year-old dream to forge a railway version of the famed Silk Road of old moved a step closer to realization today at a regional United Nations transport conference with the signing of an agreement to create an 81,000-kilometre network originating on the Pacific seaboard of Asia and ending up on the doorstep of Europe.
The Intergovernmental Agreement on the Trans-Asian Railway Network (TAR), signed by 18 Member States of the UN Economic and social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) at its ministerial conference on transport in Busan, Republic of Korea, complements a 2005 accord on the Asian Highway Network.
“Through these two Agreements, UNESCAP will usher in a new era of cooperation and partnership for regional integration,” Commission Executive Secretary Kim Hak-Su said, stressing the so-called ‘Iron’ Silk Road’s projected role in facilitating international trade and tourism.
“What underpins that vision? Certainly the conviction that the possibility to move and trade freely creates new opportunities and opens up new horizons for people,” he added of the proposed network, which will link up and rehabilitate existing lines.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a message to the conference, termed the agreement “a milestone in cooperation” within the region.
“Sustainable transport has a significant role to play in advancing efforts towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), by improving access for those that today are far removed from opportunities, services and markets,” he added, referring to the ambitious targets for slashing a host of social ills such as extreme poverty, hunger, maternal and infant mortality, and a lack of access to education, all by 2015.
TAR is crucial for landlocked countries whose access to world markets is heavily dependent on efficient links to the region’s main international ports. Twelve of the world’s 30 landlocked countries are in Asia, and 10 are TAR members. With 60 per cent of the world’s population generating 26 per cent of its gross domestic product, Asia’s demand for efficient transport is greater than at any time in its history, Mr. Kim said.
UNESCAP experts believe that port efficiency can be enhanced through the integration of rail and shipping to avoid port congestion, a key factor in Asia, which is home to 13 of the world’s top 20 container ports.
Signing the agreement today were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, the Republic of Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Viet Nam. Also expected to participate are Bangladesh, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Singapore and Turkmenistan.
The accord will be deposited with the UN Secretary-General in New York and remain open for signature for two years. It will come into force 90 days after eight states deposit instrument of ratification or the equivalent.
The seeds for the ‘Iron Silk Road’ were sown some five decades ago. In 1960 the initial plan provided for a continuous 14,000 kilometre rail link between Singapore and Turkey, via South-East Asia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Iran.
Today’s projected network is far more ambitious, with 81,000 kilometres of railway line selected as vital arteries by member countries to provide regional connections as well as links to Europe.