Construction of the Trans-Asia Railway, envisaged as one of the world's great infrastructure projects, has been hit by a series of cost hurdles in Cambodia, and the project will require additional funding, a confidential feasibility study has suggested.
A single unfinished, unfunded stretch of 255 kilometres, from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border, stands in the way of the dream of an integrated rail network stretching 14,000 kilometres from Singapore to Istanbul - and then beyond, all the way to London. It is a vision that spans five decades, some 20 nations and a total of 80,900 kilometres of track.
Crucially for Beijing, it would provide an unbroken rail link from the ports of Singapore to China, via Kunming . But sources close to the Cambodian government said that the relatively high cost of the final stretch, which spans several sections of the Mekong River, meant that Cambodia would be unable to complete the project on its own.
Although China would be one of the main economic beneficiaries of the completion of the project, it might be unwilling to cover the shortfall on its own. That leaves the Asian Development Bank and World Bank as possible sources of funding.
The confidential report by consultants the China Railway Group - the so-called Preliminary Technical Study Report - estimates it will cost US$262 million for a 1,000 metre bridge over the Mekong River and a 1,500 metre bridge over the Tonle Sap River.
If funding can be secured - and resident resettlement and border issues resolved quickly - then Cambodian authorities want construction of the final link to start within the next 18 months.
'Neither will want to go it alone at that price,' one Cambodian government source familiar with the report said, referring to Cambodia and China. 'If it goes ahead, it will have to find additional funding, and given that it will benefit the entire region, it might find support from the ADB or the World Bank.'
The government source also said at least US$120 million would have to be spent on smaller bridges along the proposed Cambodian route.
Touch Chankosal, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, said a previous, unpublished report, had also put the cost at about US$600 million.
'We're undecided what the government will contribute, we need to see the final report and how much it says it will cost,' he said.
Under the current proposed route, the final stretch would be laid from Bat Doeng, just outside Phnom Penh, at the termination point of an existing railway line that extends from the Thai border to the Cambodian capital. The new line would then cross the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers before eventually linking up with Vietnam's rail network at the border at Loc Ninh.
A 128-kilometre Vietnamese section between Loc Ninh and Ho Chi Minh City is also yet to be built, but construction has been approved and is scheduled to begin next year.
The existing Cambodian portion of track, from Phnom Penh west to the Thai border, is managed by Australia's Toll Holdings.
Paul Power, an adviser to the Cambodian government and team leader for the ADB's involvement in the reconstruction of Cambodia's railways, said the railway's economic benefit for the region and Cambodia would be enormous.
'It makes Cambodia the hub of transportation between China and Singapore, and you would have a port link, you would have a link to Thailand, you'll have a link through to Vietnam.'
He also said freight would provide the greatest economic benefits, particularly for shipping bulk goods such as rice.
However, the contractors must first also deal with the thorny issue of resettling people living along the route. In Cambodia, poor landholders are often pushed out with little compensation to make way for commercial developments, causing considerable public anger.
Power said the companies involved with the railway were aware of the problems that have afflicted other construction projects in the country, and felt they could avoid similar difficulties.
Touch Chankosal said other issues that needed to be resolved included an agreement with Thailand over the rail border crossing.
Border relations between Thailand and Cambodia have not been good recently, following the dispute and military standoff over land surrounding the temple at Preah Vihear, just inside Cambodian territory.
He added there were no plans as yet to extend the railway into Laos.
'The railway will help the economy a lot. It will reduce heavy transportation on the roads and facilitate trade exchange between neighbouring countries and this will boost economic growth,' he said.
The missing link
The following route shows how various national rail networks connect to create one version of the Trans-Asian Railway. Many such routes exist, but the missing section of track in Cambodia is necessary for all in order to reach the ultimate Pacific destination of Singapore
Confirmed participating nations: 20
Total amount of track: 80, 900km
Shortest possible distance between Singapore and Istanbul: 14, 000km
Number of different track widths: 4
Years in planing: 40+
Length of missing Cambodian section: 255km
Estimated cost: US$600m