The proposed plan is part of a 17-country transcontinental rail project

China wants to build a high-speed rail line connecting its south-western city of Kunming to New Delhi and Lahore, part of a 17-country transcontinental rail project, officials familiar with the plans told The Hindu.

After years of much talk and little progress, China has finally reached agreements with several Central Asian countries and given the green signal to its ambitious pan-Asian high-speed rail link, which envisages connecting cities in China to Central Asia, Iran, Europe, Russia and Singapore.

One proposal involves a line running from Kunming, in south-western Yunnan province, to New Delhi, Lahore and on to Tehran, according to Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and one of the country's leading railway consultants.

“India is a relatively small country with a huge population,” he told The Hindu in an interview. “It will be too costly to build highways for India, so our high-speed rail link project will improve transportation efficiency and resources. I am confident we can finally reach an agreement, which will greatly help exports to the Indian Ocean direction.” He said talks with Indian officials were “friendly,” and they had been “welcoming” of the idea

. The pan-Asian high-speed rail link has been talked about by Chinese officials since 1995, but appears to have finally begun to gather momentum following negotiations last year, and after China's own success in launching a domestic high-speed rail network.

In December, China opened what it described as the world's fastest rail link, between Wuhan and southern Guangzhou, where a 350 kmph-speed train covers the 1,068 km journey in three hours, down from 10.5 hours. By 2012, China will have opened 42 high-speed lines, covering 13,000 km of its total railway coverage of 110,000 km. When completed, China's will be the world's largest high-speed railway network.

Three lines

China now intends to extend this rail network far beyond its borders. The plan involves constructing three high-speed lines: a southern line through Cambodia, Vietnam and extending to Singapore; a western line from the country's Xinjiang region through Central Asia; and the third running north through the gas reserves of Russia to eastern Europe, and possibly even all the way to the United Kingdom. The proposed line to India, running through Myanmar, will join with the central line at Tehran.

Mr. Wang told The Hindu that China had reached an agreement with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while negotiations with other countries “are now going smoothly.” Construction work has begun on the southern line, which starts from Kunming and runs to Singapore.

Negotiations with the military government in Myanmar and also with Singapore, where the southern line will end, had progressed positively, he said.

When completed, the plan will give China unprecedented access to energy resources in many of these countries.

A spokesperson at the Ministry of Railways told the official Global Times newspaper on Friday that the Chinese government has initiated talks with some of the 17 countries involved in the project. China will bear the brunt of the cost of building the high-speed rail lines in many of the countries involved, but will in return get access to energy resources in a proposed “resources for technology” arrangement, the Global Times reported.

Mr. Wang, also a professor of civil engineering at the Beijing Jiaotong University, said in the best-case scenario the rail link would be completed by 2025, when a train journey from Beijing to London would only take two days.

But two factors that have continued to hinder the project, Mr. Wang said, were differences in the standard of railway track used in some countries, as well as track renovations needed in some areas. In the southern line, for instance, more than 650 km of track need renovation in Cambodia, while some sections in Myanmar were below the required standards. The rail lines that will be constructed would be 1,435 mm standard gauge lines, he said, and “are to be exclusively used by the new high-speed transportation.”

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