I just happened to read about the Pan -Asian Railway line,or Trans Asian Railway [TAR} as it is called as it was celebrating 50 years of it’s being envisaged. It made interesting reading, because it was a deadly mix of two of my favourite topics -railways and supply-chain!
The Pan-Asian Railway was envisaged to connect Asia to Europe by rail. It currently has a total length of rail line is 81000kms across 4 gauges. 4 trial runs have been made with container loads.
Currently, all freight traffic originating from Asia destined for Europe goes by sea. The TAR will enable containers from Singapore, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Korea to travel all the way to Europe over land by train. This provides an alternate mode of freight movement and will be a competitor to sea-freight and shipping.
There are 4 lines or corridors that have been identified.
- Northern corridor: This connects Korea to Europe via Russia, Mangolia, China and Kazhakistan. The container traffic would originate from Pusan, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Shenzen, Nakhoda and Rajin for destinations in Europe.
- Southern corridor: This is the corridor which is of significant importance to India. It connects Yunan In China and Thailand with Europe via Turkey. The line passes through the infamous death railway from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok, Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, India again, Pakistan, Iran and then Turkey.
- ASEAN corridor: Connecting Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. This corridor would connect Singapore to China and would also link ASEAN to Europe via the Southern corridor.
- North-South corridor. Linking Northern Europe to the Persian Gulf via Russia, Iran and the Central Asian Republics.
Routes in the Southern corridor
The Southern Corridor has 2 routes one of which is ;
CHINA:Kunming-Dali-Xiaguan-Ruili-MYANMAR: Mu-se-Lashio-Mandalay-Tamu- INDIA: Imphal-Silchar-Mahisasan- BANGLADESH: Shahbazpur- Kulaura- Tongi-Tangail-Darsana- INDIA: Gede- Attari- PAKISTAN: Wagah-Lahore-Raiwind-Khanewal-Lodhran- Rohri-Sukkur- Jacobabad-Spezand- Nokhundi-Koh i Taftan- IRAN: Zahedan-Kerman-Bafq-Qom-Tehran-Razi- TURKEY: Kapicoy-Van-Malatya- Cetinkaya- Ankara- Haydarpasa- Istanbul- Kapikule- BULGARIA: Svilengrad and onwards to Romania, Hungary and Austria.
From Kapikule, the corridor would allow access to Western Europe via Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria. From Kunming to Kapikule, it would have a total length of 11,700 km of which 9,790 km (or 84 per cent) is in place, 95 km (1 percent) comprises ferry links, and 1,820 km (15 per cent) would need to be constructed, most of it through difficult mountainous terrain. This line passes has 3 gauges and 5 inter-gauge transfers.
The next route would be THAILAND: Bangkok [ which is linked to Singapore via Hatyai-Pedang Besar/ Sungei Kolok-Butterworth-Gemas-Johor Baru]- Kanchanaburi-Nam Tok- Three Pagoda Pass-MYANMAR: Thanbyuzayat-Mawlamyaing-Moktama-Bago-Mandalay to join the above route. An alternate alignment is Nam Tok-Ban Bong Tee-Dawei-Ye-Thanbyuzayat
Missing Links in the Southern corridor
Nam-Tok [ Nam Tok is the last stop on the”Bridge on the River Kwai” line. 3 years back I took the morning train from Bangkok, which passes Kanchanaburi, then goes over the “bridge on the river Kwai” and passes through some breathtaking viaducts to reach Nam-Tok, which is the end of the line] in Thailand to Three Pagoda Pass to Thambyuzayat in Myanmar. The alternate route Nam-Tok-Ban Bong Tee to Dawei is also missing.
Between Mawlangyiang and Moktama there is a missing crossing on Thanlwin river, 4kms wide.
Kalay to Tamu in Myanmar. From Tamu the line would move to Imphal on the same alignment as highway 39 then westerly to Jiribam along highway 53, crossing into Bangladesh at Mahisasan.
In Iran between Zahedan to Kareman. there is a missing link of 550kms, which is under construction.IRCON [ Indian Railways Construction Company was given the contract to lay the signaling on this line]
For traffic originating from Kunming the Northern corridor is shorter and involves fewer border crossing 4 vs 7 and fewer break of gauge Also the Northern corridor is complete while the Southern corridor has missing links.
Issues to be sorted before the TAR becomes a reality and commercially viable
Issues that have to be resolved are (i)gaps in the network (ii) change of gauge, (iii) border crossing procedures and (iv) technical issues like axle loading, maximum moving dimensions and (v) commercial issues like pricing, linkages with freight forwarders.
To compete with shipping the Railways will have to ensure that the transit times offered by rail is lower than shipping. To poach business from shipping the transit time difference between shipping and railways for containers originating from Singapore or China should be at least 5- 7 days.
The Railways will have to offer a lower price than shipping. For this to happen the Railways will have to adopt commercial costing methods. Currently Railways price their services based on government policies, subsidies and other criteria which has little relation to the cost of transporting the goods.
The process and procedure at the break of gauge has to be streamlined so that they do not become bottlenecks. Similarly, customs procedures should be coordinated with customs authorities so that time spent at border crossings is minimal.
Impact for India
From India shipping distance from Delhi to Rotterdam will be reduced by approximately 3500kms by using rail instead of shipping. Between India and Netherlands there would be only one change of gauge at Zahedan on the Iran – Pakistan border. Between India and the EU it will have to cross 4 borders – India-Pakistan, Pakistan-Iran, Iran-Turkey, Turkey-EU [Bulgaria]. Transportation by rail will be shorter if the destination is Eastern Europe, Central Europe and Germany.
On the link to ASEAN the issue are many more missing link Silchar to Tamu to Kalay, Thambyzayat (or Dawei – Ba Bong Tee-Nam Tok) to Nam Tok and a bridge across the Thanlwin river between Mawlangyiang and Moktama.
The rail link will ease the pressure on the Indian Ports, which are already bottlenecks in the export supply chain.
Let us see when and how the rail link to Europe becomes a reality.
Currently, it takes 15 days for a container to travel 11700kms from Mumbai to Roterrdam by ship and 8 days by train from Mumbai to Delhi- a distance of 1500kms !