Work on grand China-Laos railway kicks off, again

The long-delayed $5.7bn project to build a railway from China through northern Laos officially began on 25 December, more than a year after the previous official groundbreaking ceremony.

Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith shovelled earth and struck a gong to mark the start of construction in the Lao city of Luang Prabang, approximately mid-way along the 414km route from the Mohan-Boten border station in the north to the Lao capital Vientane, on the Thai border.

The railway will benefit Lao people of all ethnic groups– Bounchanh Sinthavong, Lao Minister of Public Works and Transport

Seventy percent funded by Chinese loans, the railway through mountainous Laos will take five years to build, and will link the Chinese city of Kunming in Yunnan Province to Thailand.

China aims eventually to extend the link through Thailand and peninsular Malaysia to Singapore as part of its One Belt, One Road strategy.

Weaving through the Annamite mountain range, the China-Laos railway will be challenging and expensive to build, with more than 62% of its length comprising bridges and tunnels, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Concerns have been raised that the Chinese loans for the railway will saddle impoverished Laos, a country of about 7 million people, with crushing debt.

But Lao officials insisted on 25 December that it would boost the economy.

"Once completed, the railway will benefit Lao people of all ethnic groups, facilitate and reduce costs of transportation, stimulate the development of agricultural and industrial sectors, tourism, investment and trade, as well as generate income for Lao people and the country," said Lao Minister of Public Works and Transport, Bounchanh Sinthavong, Xinhua reported.

The railway has been in the works for years. The idea was first proposed in 2006 and revived in 2013.

An official groundbreaking ceremony was first held on 2 December 2015, but actual construction work was delayed.

In September 2015, subsidiaries of state-owned China Railway Group won a $1.2bn contract to build three sections of the railway.

Some key issues remain unresolved. By 1st December a concession agreement over who will run the railway had still not been signed, according to the Lao director of the project, Dr Koung Souk-Aloun, who is also director of the Lao National Railway Company, local newspaper Vientane Times reported.

Another issue may be the compensation offered to people who must abandon their property to make way for the railway. Some locals have expressed anger at a lack of information regarding the project, reports Radio Free Asia, a pro-American broadcaster.

Speaking to the Vientane Times, Koung Souk-Aloun said authorities are making compensation payments to families now, and that progress on this has been made in Vientiane province.

Thirty-two stations are planned along the route, which is designed to operate at a top speed of 160km/h, according to Xinhua.

Image: The 414km railway will link Boten on the Chinese border to the Lao capital Vientane. Route shown is approximate only (Google Maps/GCR)

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