Full steam ahead for rail marvel



An engineering triumph, China-Laos link poised to deepen bonds between nations

Editor's Note: The China-Laos Railway, due to open this week, is a docking project between the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and Laos' strategy to convert itself from a landlocked country to a land-linked hub. It will bring new opportunities and provide huge momentum in strengthening Laos' economy. The train route will connect the Chinese city of Kunming to the Lao capital Vientiane, with grand plans for high-speed rail to ultimately snake down through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore.

A cross-border tunnel is at the heart of an engineering marvel that is bringing two neighbors even closer together. Aptly named the Friendship Tunnel, it is a key piece of infrastructure in the China-Laos Railway opening this week.

The tunnel stretches for 9.59 kilometers, with 7.17 km on the Chinese side in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, and 2.42 km on the Lao side, according to the China Railway No 2 Engineering Group, the project contractor.

Completed in September 2020, the construction work on the tunnel was no easy task.

The tunnel section is full of salt rock, a special surrounding rock with complex characteristics for the engineers to deal with. Being unstable and dissolving easily in water, the rock type created huge difficulties during the construction work and for safety controls.

"Tunneling through weak and fractured rock mass is a challenging task for designers and engineers," said Huang Ningshu, manager of the railway project at the China Railway No 2 Engineering Group. "The risk of collapse and deformation during construction is high."

To overcome the challenges, the contractor consulted Chinese geologists and specialists in tunneling works, and set up a task force drawing on experts from Chinese universities and research institutions to guide the construction, said Huang, adding that the tunnel's completion marked a significant step forward in the construction of the rail project.

The Friendship Tunnel, the only cross-border bridge on the railway, not only links the two countries physically but also is a symbol of the cherished friendship between the two neighbors, Huang said.

A major project under the Belt and Road Initiative, with construction beginning in 2016, the China-Laos Railway is scheduled to open this week. It dovetails with the Lao government's plan to transform the landlocked country into a land-linked hub.

The line stretches more than 1,000 km from Kunming in China's Yunnan province to Vientiane, the Lao capital, and is expected to slash the travel time between the two cities to half a day.

The Lao section, which links the Boten border gate in northern Laos with Vientiane, covers more than 400 km, with trains expected to travel at up to 160 km per hour.


Lancangjiang, the bullet train for the China-Laos Railway

Bridges, tunnels

On the Lao side, much of the territory through which the line passes comprises mountain ranges, highland areas and plateaus, with rivers winding their way through the terrain. So, more than 60 percent of the line consists of bridges and tunnels.

In the face of the engineering challenges, and then the pandemic, the project's leaders managed to ensure that the construction work progressed in an orderly way.

The Phonethong super bridge, the longest on the railway at 7.5 km with 231 support piers, was completed in early July-in less than a year.

"The completion of the bridge also marked the completion of the railway. Like the bridges and tunnels along the line, the railway tramps over hills and dales and connects people's hearts and minds," said Huang Zongwen, deputy manager of the Boten-Vientiane railway project at China Railway No 5 Engineering Group, another company involved in the construction.

"After opening to traffic, the China-Laos Railway will no doubt boost exchanges of the two peoples.

"Many Laotian people told us that they are looking forward to taking the train to China, pursuing higher education or traveling around. Some of them also want to do small businesses at the train stations."

Valy Vetsaphong, vice-president of the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry and adviser to the Lao prime minister, told Xinhua News Agency: "The railway will result in the growth of many industries like tourism, trade and investment, especially in the processing industry, and it's going to help a lot for Laos' post-pandemic recovery."

Jia Duqiang, an associate researcher in Southeast Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the new rail link will help trade between the two countries, taking it to a new level.

Biggest foreign investor

Trade between the neighbors has grown rapidly in recent years, and China is now Laos' biggest foreign investor and the country's second-largest trading partner after Thailand.

Despite the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic, Chinese investment in Laos reached $1.16 billion in the first 10 months of last year, a year-on-year rise of more than 20 percent.

The new line is also an important section of a proposed pan-Asia railway network, which in turn forms part of the Trans-Asian Railway, a wider plan drawn up in the 1960s with the aim of creating an integrated rail freight network across Europe and Asia.

The pan-Asia railway network in Southeast Asia, one of four routes on the Trans-Asian Railway, will ultimately connect Kunming, the Thai capital Bangkok and Singapore.

Crucial for connecting China and Thailand, the China-Laos Railway is expected to inject new life into Southeast Asia as a whole.

Jia said it will also set a good example for construction of the pan-Asia railway system and boost the region's economic recovery just as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership takes effect in January.

If the China-Thailand railway proceeds as planned in the coming years, it will form the central line of the Southeast Asian network, expanding trade and people-to-people exchanges between China and nations in the Association of Southeast Asia, Jia added.

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