|Iron Silk Road|
Asian transport ministers on Friday began formal talks on a proposed railway network to promote trade and balanced development on the world's fastest-growing continent.
Forty-one Asia-Pacific countries have sent representatives to the two-day ministerial meeting on transport organised by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
"Advances in transport improve productivity, reduce costs and promote trade. That, in turn, encourages economic growth and social development," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a message to the meeting.
Ministers later Friday are to sign a landmark inter-governmental agreement on the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR), also dubbed the "Iron Silk Road" after the ancient trade route.
The proposed 81,000-kilometer network, first mooted by the UN back in 1960, would link capitals, ports and industrial hubs across 28 Asian countries all the way to Europe.
UNESCAP chief Kim Hak-Su said the conference would "help determine the pace and scope of physically linking the hinterland areas in the deep interior of the Asian continent with Asia's bustling maritime cities and European markets" through the TAR.
"These linkages will provide seamless connectivity through transport arteries to Asian ports and European markets," Kim said in an opening speech.
UNESCAP officials said they expect 15-17 of the 28 countries involved in the project to sign the agreement on it Friday.
They said procedural matters, and not disagreement over the project itself, were causing other nations to delay. Those left out of the initial accord have another two years to sign on.
Kim told AFP on Thursday he expected the accord to come into force in the second half of next year after eight countries ratify it.
The ratification would encourage international lenders like the Asian Development Bank to seriously consider loan requests from TAR signatories, some of whom are in desperate need of finance, Kim said.
The slow progress over the past five decades indicates challenges still ahead even though the Cold War, a major obstacle, is long over.
One stumbling block is Democractic People's Republic of Korea. Republic of Korea would have to traverse its territory to gain access to the Russian or Chinese rail networks.
Work has been completed on laying track across the heavily fortified inter-Korean frontier to reconnect two lines severed during the Korean War but planned test runs were cancelled in May amid tensions over other issues.
Other continent-wide problems include switching between different-gauge tracks, where to stop, how to handle sometimes tricky quarantine and immigration paperwork, and how to safely ferry cargo and people across many borders.
But fast-growing Asia, home to 60 percent of the world's population and generating 26 percent of the world's economic output, deserves better transport, UNESCAP chief Kim has said.
The continent boasts 13 of the world's top 20 container seaports but it has fewer than 100 "dry ports" -- inland container depots -- while Europe has 200 and the United States 370.