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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peace, prosperity revive dream of connecting Asia by rail

NONG KHAI, Thailand (AFP) - As Asia develops at a whirlwind pace and peace holds in once-warring nations, countries are reviving a decades-old dream of connecting the vast continent with a continuous railway.

Like the ancient Silk Road but made of sleepers and track, the route would ferry goods and tourists from Singapore to St Petersburg, Phnom Penh to Pyongyang, creating development wherever the carriages pull in.

The idea was born in 1960 but was stalled by decades of conflict and poverty across the region.

Then the break up of the Soviet Union and the opening up of China ushered in a new era for Asian railways, said Barry Cable, Bangkok-based transport and tourism director at United Nations regional economic body UNESCAP.

"Countries have started to explore the international benefits of the railways," he told AFP.

"If railways are really going to fulfill their potential the investment required is going to be substantial, but the benefits are going to be huge."

In November 2006, 18 Asian nations including China and Russia signed a formal agreement to integrate the continent into a single railway network.

The UN-backed Trans-Asian Railway route now has nearly 74,700 kilometres (464,164 miles) of functioning track, serving 29 countries stretching west to Turkey and Russia and east to Vietnam and South Korea.

There are still around 6,200 kilometres of missing links, and filling in those blanks will cost roughly 15 billion dollars, the UN estimated two years ago.

Although authoritarian regimes, political tensions and gaps in funding are preventing a completely smooth ride, countries across the region are taking steps toward completion of the railway.

In northeastern Thailand, a new track due to open in March 2009 runs over the Friendship Bridge spanning the Mekong river linking Thailand and Laos.

It's only about five kilometres long from Nong Khai town in Thailand to Tha Na Laeng just over the border, but it is the first track to be laid in Laos, opening up a vital rail route to the sea for the landlocked nation.

At Nong Khai's river port, a constant stream of burly men lug cartons of food and household goods onto boats, which will sail across the Mekong to Laos.

Ead Kitkla, a 46-year-old Thai trader, says his load of coconut milk, spices and seeds has to travel from Bangkok to Laos in three buses and a boat.

"The train will be more convenient to go to Vientiane. There will be no need to take many buses," he said. "It will save time."

But, he added, life will be even easier when the Laotian government extends the line another nine kilometres to the capital, a move still in the planning stages.

Many of the gaps in the railway are in Southeast Asia, with only Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand operating cross-border links.

Thailand and Cambodia are linked by a track that has fallen out of use. Civil war in Cambodia only ended in the 1990s, and trains there crawl along dilapidated tracks.

The Asian Development Bank has stepped in with funds to help overhaul the railways, a project expected to be finished within three years, says Touch Chan Kosal, undersecretary of Cambodia's transport ministry.

He says no agreement has been reached on reconnecting with Thailand, and the two countries are preoccupied with a border dispute which threatened to escalate into a military clash.

The UN thinks the link can be running in two years, sparking an interest in a connection to Vietnam -- which has two rail crossings to China -- thus sewing up most of Southeast Asia all the way to Russia.

Like any chain, it is only as strong as its weakest link, and there seems little hope of connecting Asia with military-ruled Myanmar, one of the world's poorest countries.

Pierre Chartier, economic affairs officer for UNESCAP's transport division, said the Korean International Cooperation Agency financed a feasibility study on reconnecting the Thai-Myanmar link.

"The figures are not very good, economically speaking, in terms of traffic that could be expected to travel on this line, compared to the cost of putting the infrastructure in place," he says.

Cable said both the mountainous terrain and the isolationist regime in Myanmar are standing in the way of connecting Southeast Asia with India and on through Iran to Turkey.

"Under the present regime, no substantial progress will be made," he says.

But barriers once thought immovable have been broken -- North and South Korea, for instance, launched a cross-border freight train last December.

Another problem across Asia's sub-regions is the different railways gauges, the space between the tracks, but Cable says freight can simply be loaded from train to train.

He envisages dry ports, where goods will arrive and go through customs, creating bubbles of development, employment, trade and industry while cutting down the reliance on roads.

"We have to worry about energy and environment and about safety, and while we are all seeking new technologies and ways of reducing energy consumption, we have one technology already available to use, and that's railways," he says.

Tourists too will be keen to travel by train, he said, as they are increasingly aware of air travel's impact on climate change.

But improved transport links also give an easier ride to traffickers in women, children, drugs and wildlife -- all trades which have historically thrived in Southeast Asia and which governments are striving to wipe out.

Patchareeboon Sakulpitakphon, an programme officer from ECPAT, a group which works to end trafficking in children for sex, says pockets of development around rail terminals may also create pockets of vulnerability.

"People who are in poverty, they might see this railway as an opportunity to make an increased living, they might migrate to that area," she said.

"People involved in commercial sexual exploitation of children will know this might be a new area where vulnerable people might go."

To counter this, she said, authorities need to make sure communities around the railways are educated about the dangers of trafficking.

Cable said donor nations and financial institutions must make funding for railways conditional on programmes to address social woes, but said he believes the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks.

The UN sets a timeframe of 10 to 15 years for completion of the Trans-Asian Railway, which experts say is realistic if Asian nations maintain the political will.

"People are starting to rediscover their railways and saying what can we do to make them contribute more to economic development," says Chris Jackson, editor of British-based industry publication the Railway Gazette International.

"Tying up the loose ends and developing these international corridors is certainly part of it.

"If the railways can get their act together, there is potential to carry a lot of business in a fairly profitable way."
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Jetstar to add Denpasar service in boost to hub

JETSTAR has moved to further bolster its new international hub in Darwin by adding a daily Brisbane-Darwin-Denpasar service from December 3.

The move will provide one-stop Airbus A320 flights from the three big east coast cities and complements existing non-stop A330 services from Sydney and Melbourne.

It sees frequencies between Brisbane and Darwin rise from six to 13 a week and brings to 69 the number of weekly domestic and international A320 services the low-cost carrier now operates out of the Northern Territory capital.

Jetstar spokesman Simon Westaway said the move would make Jetstar the strongest local carrier serving the Bali market from December.

Mr Westaway said the capacity was in addition to the six weekly A330 flights -- two from Melbourne and four from Sydney -- and said there was no intention of cancelling those services.

"This is part of our narrowbody strategy of developing Darwin as a legitimate domestic and international hub," he said. "Darwin gets a third Asian destination -- we link it directly with Singapore and since September we've been operating to Ho Chi Minh City as well."

The move is part of a broader plan to use A320 and A321 aircraft to service Southeast Asian destinations through Darwin and Perth. The strategy, hatched after delays to the airline's 15 Boeing 787s, also saw Jetstar pull A330 services out of Vietnam and Malaysia and redeploy them to protect slots in Japan.

Mr Westaway said the extra capacity was warranted, given the Bali market's significant growth.

He pointed to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures that show a 63 per cent jump in Australian visitors to the island last year and a 60 per cent rise this year.

The recovery comes after Australian tourism to the holiday island slumped in the wake of bombings by Islamic extremists. "It's all about having low fares and an efficient transition through Darwin International Airport and the incremental capacity, we think, is absolutely warranted on where we think the Bali market's now at," he said.

Mr Westaway said Perth was due to get an international boost late next month, with flights to Denpasar, Jakarta and Singapore.

He said this would be a first for the airline and would see Qantas move off the markets.

"We're looking at the opportunities that can emerge out of Perth, particularly as we move into 2009," he said. "But by December we'll have a number of international services running out of Perth with the first being October 27, which is the Perth to Denpasar service." The airline's wide-body growth depends on the delivery of its 787s. They are due in November next year but there has been speculation there could be further delays.

Mr Westaway said the airline had regular updates from Boeing and said its planning was still based around a first delivery in November next year. "As an organisation we're continuing to work towards that," he said. "Of course we're watching what's occurring in Seattle and with the Boeing organisation with a great deal of interest."

He said the carrier's short to medium-term growth would be generated by narrow-body deliveries. Jetstar currently has 29 A320s and two leased A321s.

New planes due in December, February and March will bring the A320 fleet to 32, completing an order of nine planes added to the original fleet of 23.

From mid-year, Jetstar will start taking planes from a bigger order of 68 firm aircraft, at least 17 will be bigger A321s.

Some of those planes will go to the Qantas Group's Vietnamese investment, Jetstar Pacific, which recently announced it would start international services under the brand later year.

The Vietnamese carrier said it would offer daily direct services to Bangkok from October 31 and Siem Reap, in Cambodia, from November 3.

It will initially use Boeing 737s before moving to the A320s.

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CAMBODIA: Landmine challenge to development

PHNOM PENH, 11 September 2008 (IRIN) - Landmine and explosive remnants of war (ERW) casualties in Cambodia fell to an all-time low of 351 in 2007, further evidence of the downward trend since the 1990s.

The post-conflict peak was 1996, when Cambodia suffered 4,320 landmine or ERW-related deaths and injuries, according to a government report.

But challenges remain.

An unknown number of villages - perhaps more than 40 percent nationwide - are vulnerable to landmines, the government said.

It tried to estimate the extent of contaminated land in 2002 but later judged its measurements poorly defined.

These problems, coupled with scarce land resources – partly due to widespread evictions and spiralling property prices – place additional importance on developing the newly available land after clearance, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

"Cambodia remains one of the most mine/ERW contaminated countries in the world and will require sustained external funding into the medium term to overcome it," Steve Munroe, UNDP mine action programme manager, told IRIN.

"By strengthening the mine-clearance process and making productive land available to the rural poor, UNDP's mine-clearance activities directly contribute to poverty reduction in Cambodia," he said.

According to the Cambodia Millennium Development Goals, eliminating the negative development impact of landmines, including limited arable land, is just as important as cutting the numbers of victims.

"In terms of the prioritisation of landmine clearance … they [mine action groups] must integrate their development and mine action programmes to address poverty," Heng Ratana, deputy director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) http://www.cmac.org.kh/publication_ar2005.asp, told IRIN.

Following up on mine-clearance projects with community-based education projects and checking on the efficient use of land after clearance remain priorities for mine-action NGOs.

Farming risks

Villagers often take extreme risks farming but have no choice given their impoverished circumstances, says UNDP.

However, Leang Sopheap, a farmer in the heavily mined northwest Battambang Province, is willing to take the risk. "I have to feed my family, and that's the most important thing," he told IRIN. "We can guess about landmines when we build farms, but we won't always be certain."

Despite a significant drop in casualties over the past six years, landmines and ERW continue to affect countless communities by limiting access to land that could be put to productive use, according to UNDP.

Focusing solely on the number of mines unearthed loses sight of the bigger development picture, says Herbert Feddon, senior project manager at BACTEC, in Cambodia, a commercial de-mining company.

"Problem is, the donors want to see more and more landmines cleared per hectare, but that's quite difficult with the fatigue the de-miners experience in Cambodia," he said.

Most objects found are random bits of metal debris, which, coupled with scorching heat, makes clearance particularly onerous, he explained. About 16 landmines were discovered per hectare of land in 2007, the government estimates.

"There's also the difficulty in measuring the number of landmines in Cambodia," he added. Estimates range from two to 10 million but he says around five million could be in the ballpark.

Bloody history

Bombings against Cambodia during the second world war and the subsequent French-Indochina war in the 1950s scattered the countryside - particularly at the Vietnam border - with ERWs.

From 1969 to 1973, the US dropped more than 500,000 MT of explosives during its carpet-bombing campaigns against the communists. The unexploded remnants of these bombs kill or injure more Cambodians annually than landmines, at 198 victims in 2007.

In 1967, the North Vietnamese army began laying landmines in Cambodia to protect its supply routes; mining intensified in 1970, when General Lon Nol mined the countryside against the Khmer Rouge communists.

Throughout the 1980s, the Thai military mined its border to defend against a possible spillover from the retreating Khmer Rouge, who had lost their hold on the capital. The Cambodian government and rebel forces also mined the country against each other throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The arrival of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) [see: http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/dpko/co_mission/untac.htm] in 1992, a peacekeeping mission, signalled the beginning of mine-action initiatives. Since then, Cambodia has signed the 1997 Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines and has destroyed its stockpiles of ordnance.
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