BANGKOK Train buffs of the world, get ready for some great rides: Seoul to Moscow, for example, or tropical Singapore to the highlands of southern China.
Plans are also chugging along for high-speed trains in South Korea and China, lines through one-time war zones and within railless Laos, even an Asia-Europe passage under the Bosporus.
“Past cooperation has been slow, but now there is more political will and interest,” Barry Cable, a transportation expert at the United Nations, said of a decades-old project to link the farthest corners of Asia with Europe while developing regional rail networks.
Regardless of political backing, specialists say train transport in Asia will inevitably boom this century because roads simply won’t be able to carry the mounting traffic. Tourist promoters and environmentalists are likewise enthusiastic.
“The train projects will open up many tourism opportunities. They will certainly attract new business for the whole region,” said Luzi Matzig of Asian Trails, a Bangkok-based tourist agency that has pioneered travel to remote areas of Southeast Asia.
When complete, an envisioned trans-Asian railway is to encompass two major east-west flows: A northern corridor will link the Korean Peninsula to Moscow and the eastern gates of Europe; a southern route is to run from Bangladesh across India, Pakistan and Iran and on to Istanbul. A tunnel under the Bosporus would make the Asia-Europe connection. Both routes would be coupled to Southeast Asia.
A major regional initiative, first proposed by Malaysia in 1995, calls for a 3,344-mile line from Singapore at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula to Kunming, capital of China’s southernmost province of Yunnan. Spurs to Burma and within Laos, which does not have a single foot of track, would be part of the project, which is being pushed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The project is viewed as a vehicle to better bind the economies of the region and provide southern China with easier access to the sea and to markets in the region.
Honorio R. Vitasa of the ASEAN Secretariat said the major challenge facing the Singapore-Kunming line, which would take a decade to complete, is attracting some $2.5 billion in needed funds.
Rickety old tracks need rehabilitation and 267 miles of gaps in Cambodia will have to be filled before a Singapore-Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok-Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh City-Hanoi-Kunming journey is possible.
North Korea and Burma are key barriers to the dream for the trans-Asian railway, which was first proposed in 1960 and is supported by 24 nations.
But in September, North and South Korea agreed to restore the 15-mile rail link through the demilitarized zone dividing those nations, and preliminary work has already begun. The last train ran through the area at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.
“We’re very optimistic and enthusiastic. There will be some hiccups, but this time it seems there is a real commitment to reconnection,” said Mr. Cable, an official at the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
Rail passage through the DMZ would benefit both Koreas and the Russian Federation, which now relies on sea routes to ship the output of its mines to South Korea’s industries.
There are, however, no signs of progress on a railway through Burma, which would be crucial to a southern Asia corridor linking the region to Europe.
The military-run nation, shunned by many Western countries, is plagued by economic problems and insurgencies, some along the proposed railway route.
The focus now, Mr. Cable said, is on moving freight in containers along the northern rail corridor. Freight on rails can travel from northern Asia to Europe in 10 days, as opposed to 25 days by sea.
Links from the northern corridor to the landlocked countries of Central Asia would be a later step.
The United Nations says that over the past half-decade expanded roads accounted for most of the growth in Asian land transport. But railways remain vital.
Asian trains carry about 18 billion passengers and 3.6 billion tons of freight a year over 217,500 miles of track. They employ 7 million people.
Pierre Chartier, another U.N. expert, said Asian planners are becoming more aware of “congestion costs” and environmental harm from road travel. Rail offers greater safety, lower fuel consumption and less pollution.
Some $73 billion will be spent in Asia on rail projects before 2006, with China accounting for $45 billion, the United Nations has forecast.
The Chinese are planning to put high-speed trains into service, while South Korea has already begun work on a link between its capital, Seoul, and the southern port of Pusan that will see trains whiz along at 186 mph.
The first phase is due for completion in 2004.