The semi-high-speed linking China with Laos will soon celebrate its 1st year anniversary. Inaugurated on the 3rd of December 2021, the 1,035-kilometer route runs through the country’s mountain ranges to connect the southeastern Chinese city of Kunming with Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
The $6 billion infrastructure was financed mostly by China under the “New Silk Road” initiative and should boost the economy of this small Southeast Asian country. A few challenges remain as, according to CNN, tickets can only be purchased in cash within three days of travel (an online system is expected to be operating soon). Tickets may be bought at Laos-China Railway stations or a handful of non-railway ticket offices.
The train route connects the Chinese city of Kunming with Vientiane and there are plans for a high-speed train down through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore. Laos previously had only 4 km of rail track. For now it has red, blue and white painted trains traveling at up to 160 km/h, passing through 75 tunnels and 167 bridges with 10 passenger stations.
China, which hopes to extend the route through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore, has funded the line as part of its “New Silk Roads” policy. The initiative funds infrastructure projects around the world to increase Beijing’s influence.
According to authorities in China, the 414 km stretch through Laos will boost the country’s fragile economy by connecting it to the Chinese market. It will go from being a landlocked country to a regional hub, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Laos, a closed communist-ruled country of 7.2 million people, is one of the poorest in Asia. While analysts recognize the economic potential of the rail line, they show concern for the country, which bears 30% of the overall cost of the infrastructure and had to borrow $1.06 billion to finance it.
To reap the benefits of the railroad, the government must adopt substantial reforms, including improving its border management system, according to a World Bank report.
Despite recording only dozens of Covid-19 cases through April, the pandemic hit Laos’ economy, which contracted 0.4% in 2020, the lowest level in three decades, according to the World Bank. Hope for a recovery in 2021 vanished as Laos was confined by recording 70,000 infections in the past eight months.
Two-thirds of the population lives in rural villages and until now, the country had only 4km of railway lines, so 75 tunnels and 167 bridges had to be built.
The project forced 4,400 farmers and villagers off their land and many waited a long time to receive their compensation or received insufficient amounts, the Lao Movement for Human Rights said in a report.
The tourism sector is urgently waiting for a recovery after the pandemic caused an 80% drop in the number of visitors in 2020. In 2019, the country welcomed 4.7 million foreign tourists.