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« on: November 13, 2006, 10:14:28 PM »

Asian nations sign 'Iron Silk Road' deal

By KELLY OLSEN, Associated Press Writer Fri Nov 10, 9:06 AM ET

BUSAN, South Korea - For decades, Asian officials have dreamed of a continent-spanning railway network linking landlocked countries to vibrant coastal cities, boosting commerce along the paths of ancient trade routes.

Train transport linking places as diverse as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Kabul, Afghanistan, or Yerevan, Armenia, and Yangon, Myanmar, has made little progress, however, since the United Nations first conceived the Trans-Asian Railway Network in 1960.

Hopes stalled by Cold War conflicts and uneven economic growth got a boost Friday with the completion of the first international agreement to implement what has been dubbed the "Iron Silk Road," evoking the caravans that once linked Asia to Europe.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, Russia, South Korea, Turkey and seven other nations agreed to meet at least every two years to identify vital rail routes, coordinate standards and financing and plan upgrades and expansions, among other measures.

"It now rests with today's transport planners to advance action on this vision," Kim Hak-su, a U.N. under secretary-general, said at the signing ceremony at the two-day Ministerial Conference on Transport, sponsored by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the U.N.'s Bangkok-based regional office.

The network already comprises 50,000 miles of track through 28 countries; Kim said that only 4,030 miles of track need to be built, mostly in poorer regions in the network's southern corridor, which includes countries in Southeast Asia.

"It may cost a lot of money to construct this missing link," Kim said.

One study by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations suggested that about $2.5 billion would be needed in that region to fill in gaps between various train networks .

"On this one, to get to the reality it's going to take a lot of work," said Steven Yang, an executive with Rotem Co., a South Korean railway systems supplier with projects in 34 countries including Bangladesh, Iran, Nigeria, Brazil and the United States.

"The first obstacle they are going to have is rail gauge," Yang said, referring to national variations in track width.

Myanmar, one of the countries that supports the agreement but which chose not to sign, cited "financial constraints" preventing it from upgrading its rail system.

A U.N. map of the proposed network includes the Korean peninsula. However, a plan by North and South Korea to restore rail links severed by the Korean War remains hostage to political tensions.

North Korea, a member country of the network, didn't send a delegation to the conference amid ongoing tensions over its nuclear program, which resulted in a nuclear test last month.

Geographically isolated countries in particular emphasized the benefits of more and better rail links.

Landlocked Armenia, which currently has only one operational international rail connection, to a seaport in Georgia, hopes greater access will reduce the cost of moving goods overland, said Hrant Beglaryan, first deputy minister of transport and communication.

"Any kind of regional project which is related to cooperation in the field of transport is very important for us," he said.

Asian nations sign 'Iron Silk Road' deal

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