Those who believed that the proposed Trans-Asian Railways (TAR) network, connecting 28 countries from Singapore to Turkey and passing through India, would provide an opportunity for international travel by train are in for disappointment.
In early March, India ratified an inter-governmental agreement making the network, which is estimated to be completed by 2015, possible, but passenger rail travel across the East, Central and South Asian countries may not be possible, at least for now.
The reason is simple. Most member countries of TAR run trains of varying rail gauges—broad, standard and narrow—,which means that a train from one country cannot run on the tracks of another.
“As of now, running passenger trains between member countries is a difficult proposition as the gauges vary from one country to the other,” said Barry Cable, director (transportation) of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (Escap).
The UN agency had conceptualized TAR in the 1960s as a railway network between Singapore and Istanbul in Turkey, with connections to Europe from there, but several factors—including the Cold War— made the project a non-starter. People may not be able to move across borders, but if trans-shipment facilities are set up, containers and hence freight can still move across borders, added Cable.
In a telephonic conversation from Bangkok, Cable said the issue of visas and security concerns also have come in the way of running passenger trains between countries. The coordinating UN agency for the project has, therefore, decided against pursuing passenger travel across the countries.
India had joined the network after the Union cabinet earlier this month gave its approval for the country’s participation in TAR. Eighteen countries have already signed the agreement. As part of its contribution, India will have to construct new tracks on the Myanmar and Bangladesh borders to integrate with TAR.
The Escap official said there are trains having special facility by which the bogies can be adjusted to fit on a larger or smaller gauge. “This technology is used for trains to go across from China to Mongolia, but it will not be easy to get so many countries to adopt such technology,” said Cable.
India, thanks to a shared colonial legacy, runs trains on the same gauge as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. However, all the other countries on the network such as China, Russia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia run trains on smaller gauges.
According to Cable, the focus of TAR right now is on facilitating movement of freight. “There is a tremendous demand for container movement in the region. We can copy the model provided by the shipping industry and transfer containers from one train to the other at the border,”he added.
According to an Escap estimate, in order to meet the demands of the additional load of containers that will be routed through the international rail network, around 700 dry ports will have to be built. Member countries need to invest about $25 billion (Rs1,100 crore) on infrastructure.
India will have to set up 20 more dry ports with customs facilities.