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Saturday, June 20, 2009
Strategic Issues

Trans-Asian Railway network and Bangladesh

The TAR offers immense potential to shorten distances between countries and regions. Photo: Parthajit Datta/driknews

THE intergovernmental agreement on Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) network came into force on 11 June 2009. The agreement comes into effect ninety days after China has ratifed the treaty as its eighth party in March, 2009.

By the end of 2008, twenty two countries have signed the agreement and seven have become parties namely, Cambodia, India, Mongolia, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Thailand.

Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), an office of UN in the region, arranged a meeting on 11 June 2009 for the occasion at the United Nations Conference Centre, Bangkok. According to UNESCAP news the railway ministers of all parties participated in the ceremony through video messages.

The event was presided over by Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive secretary of ESCAP. Barry Cable, director of ESCAP's transport division featured a presentation on the Trans-Asian Railway followed by a question-answer session with Heyzer and Cable.

While many governments planned to invest in road construction to facilitate their growing cities and populations, Dr. Heyzer said the Asian Railways network would be a better mode of transportation which could help reduce the negative environmental impact or road vehicles and concern over energy-dependency during periods of oil price fluctuations.

The objective of TAR is to spur growth, yield economic benefit and ensure social development of a wider population.

With the Inter-governmental Agreement on the Asian Highway Network already in place, the two accords are expected to help in realising an international integrated inter-state modal transport and logistics system for the region.

The link offers immense potential to shorten the distances and reduce transit time between countries and regions, being a catalyst for the notion of international transport as a tool for trade expansion, economic growth and cultural exchanges.

The agreement also identifies stations of international importance most of which are located inland and have similar functions to that of seaports. These so-called “dry ports” will act as consolidation and distribution centers in the hinterland, creating new opportunities for growth and benefits of economic and social development to a wider population.

TAR Background
The Trans-Asian Railway network, which was initiated in the '60s, comprises 114,000 km of rail routes of international importance. It aims to offer efficient rail transport services for goods and passengers within the ESCAP region and between Asia and Europe.

The plan has sometimes been called the "Iron Silk Road" in reference to the historical Silk Road trade routes. UNESCAP's Transport & Tourism Division began work on the initiative in 1992 when it launched the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development project.

International events that punctuated the '60s, '70s and early '80s influenced the momentum of the TAR concept. However, with the political and economic changes in the region between '80s and early '90s, the development of the concept was revived.

The Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) Network agreement was signed on November 10, 2006, by seventeen Asian nations as part of a UNESCAP's effort to build a transcontinental railway network between Europe and Pacific ports in China.

Of 30 landlocked countries, 12 are located in Asia with nearest ports often several thousands of kilometers away. The network will provide improved access to major ports for the countries. Countries throughout Asia will commit to coordinate the development and operation of international rail routes linking twenty-eight countries of the region.

This is the second treaty developed under the auspices of ESCAP - the other being the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Asian Highway Network (AHN) that entered into force in July 2005.

Railway Routes
The network was initially divided into four major components, which were studied separately. They are:

(i) A northern corridor connecting the rail networks of China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the Russian Federation and the Korean Peninsula.

(ii) A southern corridor connecting Thailand and the southern Chinese province of Yunnan with Turkey through Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Sri Lanka.

(iii) A sub regional network covering the ASEAN and Indo-China sub regions, and

(iv) A north-south corridor linking Northern Europe to the Persian Gulf through the Russian Federation, Central Asia and the Caucasus region.

The proposed three routes to be passed through Bangladesh are:

Route 1 - Gede (West Bengal, India) Darshana (Chuadanga, Bangladesh)-Ishwardy-Jamuna Bridge-Joydevepur-Akhaura-Chittagong-Dohazari-Gundhum-Myanmar,

Route2 - Singabad (West Bengal)-Rajshahi (Bangladesh)-Iswardy-Jamuna Bridge-Jodevpur-Akhaura-Chittagong-Dohazari-Gundum-Myanmar and

Route 3 - Radikkapur (West Bengal)-Dinajpur-Ishwardy-Jamuna Bridge-Joydevpur-Akhaura-Chittagong-Dohazari-Gundhum-Myanmar.

Bangladesh and TAR
In May 2007, the Council of Advisors of the Bangladesh caretaker government reportedly approved the proposal to join the Trans-Asian Railway Network (TAR), aiming to expand its rail communications with other Asian countries, and subsequently with Europe in the near future and in November of that year, Bangladesh has signed the TAR. However, it has not yet ratified the treaty.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated in April that the two sea ports Chittagong and Mongla would be modernised and a deep sea port would be setup for potential use of the neighbouring countries - Nepal, Bhutan and India and even China could use it. The plan of the Prime Minister demonstrates a vision of Bangladesh playing a key role in regional economic development.

On 21 May, 2009, it has been reported that the Bangladesh government has decided to ratify the Asian Highway Network (AHN). On june 15, the cabinet decided to sign the AHN agreement and accept the proposed routes. Bangladesh would become a member of the UNESCAP once it has signed the agreement. The Prime Minister also said after being a party to AHN, Bangladesh could raise and debate about possible route changes.

It is appropriate that Bangladesh may ratify the TAR and may become its ninth member. This will be consistent with the Prime Minister's plan for building modern and fast-track communication networks across the country and also her desire that Bangladesh would act as a “bridge between East and West”.

The author is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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