The new China-Laos high-speed train link makes Laos the latest country in Asia – and the World – to have a fully-fledged rail connection. It is also an important achievement for China, as it is the first fully completed project of its “Belt and Road Initiative” in Southeast Asia.

Laos joined the rail community on December 3 with the official inauguration of its first rail line linking the country’s capital city Vientiane to Kunming in Yunnan, China. This included a traditional Buddhist ceremony to bless the new railway, in the presence of the Laotian Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh, who banged a gong nine times.

The development of a China-Laos high speed train project is a major historical event for landlocked Laos. For the first time, the country has a fully-fledged rail connection that stretches 1,035km link and cost US$6 billion to build – besides a 4km small rail linking a suburb of Vientiane to the Thai border city of Nong Khai across the Mekong River.

The Laotian section stretches over 420km traversing mountains ranges and rivers. Due to the mountainous landscapes, a total of 167 tunnels and 301 bridges were built along the new sections stretching over 900km, turning the new rail line into a technological achievement. On the Lao side only, the line has 75 tunnels and 10 passenger stations between Boten, the border town to China, and Vientiane.

Tourists to benefit from shorter travel times

The China-Laos rail crosses areas rich in wildlife including endangered wild Asian elephants but officials indicated that they took considerable care to minimise the impact on the environment..

Talking at the opening ceremony of the railway, Laos national chamber of commerce and industry vice president Valy Vetsaphong, explained that the railway “will convert Laos from being geographically disadvantaged, by taking advantage of its location, to a regional land-linked hub.”

Construction began in December 2016 in Laos and was achieved within the planned time frame. The rail line brings many benefits to the Laotian population – and in the future for tourists – as it is slashing travel times by 60% on average compared to a trip by road.

With trains running at a speed of up to 160km per hour, travel times have been sharply reduced within Laos with the addition of the railway line. Between Vientiane and the former royal capital of Luang Prabang (Lao top tourism destination), a bus drive takes up to five or six hours. With the train, the ride is down to around two and a half hours. From Vientiane to Kunming in China, travel time by bus takes 22 hours. The train covers the same distance in just 10 hours.

Luang Prabang rail station in November (Photo: China Railway Construction Group Co., Ltd. (CRCG/Handout via Xinhua)

Eyes turn to further development in Thailand

The train has a capacity to carry 720 passengers. In the first phase of operation, tickets will only be sold directly at stations. Online ticket purchases are not available at present. Passengers must also book tickets three days prior to departure, show ID and confirmation that they have received two doses of Covid-19 vaccine to board the train. For now as well, passengers on both sides are not allowed to cross the border due to the pandemic.

The rail line, which China hopes to eventually extend to Singapore, is part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The next step is the further construction on Thailand‘s side to connect Vientiane to the existing 4-km rail line in Nong Khai. Ultimately, the Thai government is working on the further upgrade of the existing rail link from Nong Khai to Nakhon Ratchasima.

Construction already started for a 252km high-speed rail link connecting Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand’s second-largest city, to the capital Bangkok. It is expected that by 2030, the 608km long rail will be served by high-speed trains. Thailand hopes to be the future high-speed rail hub in Southeast Asia with another five links planned, including one towards Malaysia. This would bring forward China’s ambition of, one day, building a smooth rail connection from Kunming to Singapore.

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