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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Full Steam Ahead for Trans-Asian Railroad

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Train buffs of the world, get ready for some extraordinary 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 former war zones and within rail-less Laos, and even an Asia-Europe passage under the Bosporus Strait.

"Past cooperation has been slow, but now there is more political will and interest," Barry Cable, a United Nations transportation expert, says of a decades-old project to link the farthest corners of Asia with Europe while developing regional rail networks.

Regardless of political backing, experts say train transport in Asia will inevitably boom this century since roads simply will not be able to carry the mounting traffic. Tourism promoters and environmentalists are equally enthusiastic.

"The train projects will open up many tourism opportunities. They will certainly attract new business for the whole region," says Luzi Matzig of Asian Trails, a Bangkok-based tourist agency that has pioneered travel to remote areas of Southeast Asia.

When complete, the Trans-Asian Railroad, or TAR, will encompass two major east-west flows: A northern corridor will link the Korean Peninsula to Moscow and the eastern gates of Europe. A southern one is to run from Bangladesh through the Indian subcontinent, Iran and on to Istanbul. A tunnel under the Bosporus Strait would seal the Asia-Europe connection. Both these flows would be coupled to Southeast Asia.

A major regional initiative, first proposed by Malaysia in 1995, calls for a 5,382-kilometer route from Singapore to Kunming, the capital of China's southernmost province of Yunnan. Spur lines to Myanmar and within Laos, which does not yet have a single meter of track, would also be part of the project, spearheaded by the Association of South East Asian Nations.

The Singapore-to-Kunming project, expected to move forward at the Nov. 3-5 summit of ASEAN leaders in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 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 ASEAN markets.

Honorio Vitasa of the ASEAN Secretariat says the major challenge facing the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link, which may take a decade to complete, is attracting some $2.5 billion in needed funds.

Old tracks require rehabilitation and 431 kilometers of missing links in Cambodia will have to be filled in before a Singapore-Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok-Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh City-Hanoi-Kunming journey is possible.

North Korea and Myanmar are key barriers to the TAR dream, first proposed in 1960 and now supported by 24 nations. But in September, the two Koreas agreed to restore the 24-kilometer rail link through the Demilitarized Zone between the onetime arch-enemies, and preliminary work has already begun. The last train ran through the area at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.