An ambitious high-speed electrified railway track running through Laos and connecting Kunming in China with northeastern Thailand is now 78 per cent complete, according to reports. All the bridges, tunnels and other structures have been built; what remains is to lay the track and install signalling and other mechanics necessary for operations. The first trains are expected to be running around two years from now. Formally announced in 2015, the railway is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is seen as a major step in the Laotian government’s desire to turn the country from being landlocked to land-linked. The 420km line cuts through northern and central Laos, starting at Boten on the Laos-China border, passing through Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang and Vientiane provinces before terminating at a station still to be built near the country’s capital, Vientiane. Its construction has been a colossal undertaking, requiring 150 bridges and more than 70 tunnels, which account for almost 200km of the line. It will have 10 stations in Laos, including one at the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, allowing for both domestic passenger and freight use. For China, the economic and geostrategic attraction of the new railway is considerable. It will link Yunnan province directly to Thailand , Malaysia and ultimately Singapore , allowing the shipment of Chinese goods to these markets without having to depend on aviation or long shipping routes. As with the proposed railway connecting Yunnan to an Indian Ocean port in Rakhine state in Myanmar , China will have greater transport and logistical options for reaching markets to its south and west. Sri Lanka seeks to undo Hambantota port lease to Chinese firm The US$6 billion cost of the China-Laos railway project is probably what has attracted greatest international attention. About 60 per cent or US$3.5 billion is in the form of borrowing from the Export-Import Bank of China. A further 40 per cent, amounting to US$2.4 billion, is being funded with equity in the form of a joint venture company comprising three Chinese state-owned firms and one Laotian state-owned enterprise. The latter enterprise holds a 30 per cent stake. To fund this, the Laotian government committed US$250 million from the national budget and took a second loan of US$480 million from the Export-Import Bank of China. The country’s combined debt exposure to the bank for the railway project is therefore over US$1.5 billion. This is a considerable sum for a country with a nominal GDP of US$20 billion, and official foreign exchange reserves of US$1.1 billion. For the railway to make economic sense, the revenue it generates will need to enable Laos to service these loans. In January 2017, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cautioned that “the risk of Lao PDR facing external debt distress has risen from moderate to high”, and in its latest ‘Article IV’ report on Laos, released in August 2019, it said “the risk of debt distress remains elevated”. More recently, a Lowy Institute study on the impact of the BRI on various countries’ debt levels noted the total debt Laos owed to China was around 45 per cent of its GDP. This exceeded all other countries considered in the study. China’s US$7 billion railway link to Laos is almost half done Laos actually has very little private sector external debt – around 13 per cent of total external debt as of 2015. But it has higher levels of multilateral debt – 23 per cent of the total – and of bilateral debt, at 64 per cent. Around 60 per cent of this debt is denominated in US dollars, with smaller amounts in yuan, yen, euros and baht. When the Laotian government first debated the railway project in 2013 – the year China announced the BRI – some reports stated Laos would provide “underground mineral reserves” as collateral. Thus, if railway revenues were not sufficient to service the debt, the lender would presumably have rights to mineral extraction as an alternative means of repayment. Whether or not this is included in the railway financing terms, which is not backed by a sovereign guarantee, it has raised the spectre of the kind of debt default seen in other countries. Such default has resulted in China taking ownership of strategically important physical assets, such as the Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka , also funded using Export-Import Bank of China loans. There is a need for policymakers to start thinking about economic corridors, and how best to leverage the new railway line to benefit the provinces through which it will run. In Laos, the greatest concern over the project has probably been adequate compensation for communities adversely affected by construction. Another point of contention is the number of Chinese workers, and conversely the lack of Laotian companies and workers taking part in construction. There are fears about the burgeoning economic clout of the Middle Kingdom and the extent to which the economy is being subsumed by China. The increased presence of Chinese nationals in northern border areas of Laos has also raised concerns. But, as China is the largest investor in the country’s modest economy, pragmatism dictates that Laos find ways to absorb and harness Chinese capital, even without considering the close ideological ties between the two leaderships. If the downside risks of this railway project – largely in the form of excessive debt – are known, what potential upside economic opportunities does it offer Laos? The World Bank appears broadly optimistic. In a recent report it suggested the railway was “expected to bring significant economic benefits to Lao PDR if important complementary economic reforms are undertaken in tandem”. But it also cautions that it “remains to be seen how economically profitable the railway will be and how the operating costs will be funded once construction is complete”. A key determinant of the railway’s commercial viability will be the extent to which it can generate new traffic, both cargo and passenger, and particularly transit traffic between China and Thailand. A simple migration of extant traffic and cargo from roads to the new railway line is unlikely to be sufficient. China-Nepal Railway: debt trap, threat to India, or a pie in the sky? But the generation of new traffic will in turn require infrastructure and logistics planning to ensure that the railway is well served by roads, cargo hub points and other platforms to allow Laotian companies can take advantage of the railway. There is a need for policymakers to start thinking about economic corridors, and how best to leverage the new railway line to benefit the provinces through which it will run. There may even be a need to rethink some existing development plans, which will entail discussions with the country’s development partners. Considerable lessons can be learned, both good and bad, from other transborder railway and infrastructure projects about how to ensure countries through which they run also benefit. Forecasts of the likely passenger and cargo figures for the railway vary. Some critics argue the figures used in the feasibility study for the railway are too bullish. However, a recent analysis using a geographical simulation model suggests Laos will benefit mostly through passenger traffic, service provision for passengers, and transit-oriented development. The extent to which soft infrastructure like customs clearance can be made smooth and reliable will also determine the attractiveness of the railway. In the latest World Bank Doing Business report, Laos scored relatively well in ease of trading across borders, ranking 78. Its overall ranking was 154. The World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index shows a broadly similar picture, ranking Laos 82 overall, with clear potential for improvement in areas such as customs, tracking, timeliness of shipments, quality of logistics providers, and others. With the right strategic approach from both the public and private sectors, the railway could prove to be a fillip for Laotian economy. It is also important that the Laotian corporate sector adopt a proactive stance, scoping out business opportunities that will arise from the railway. Having largely missed out on participation in its construction, domestic firms should not adopt a wait-and-see approach. These opportunities can also create openings for small and medium-sized firms. A lack of prior experience of large-scale railway development may hamper Laotian firms, but it does not require too much imagination, innovation and long-term planning to come up with business plans focused on harnessing the impact of the new railway service. Regardless of the concerns, the arrival of the line is beyond question. The train, as they say, has left the station. The priority now for Laos is to capitalise on it, and derive the best possible return on the investment and debt commitments it has made. With the right strategic approach from both the public and private sectors, the railway could prove to be a fillip for Laotian economy, which has for too long been dependent on a few business sectors and development partners. Laos needs to be on board to leverage the railway’s operations as a means to diversify the economy into new areas of business which were not feasible or commercially viable before. But that will not happen organically. It will require planning and execution. Nick Freeman is an independent development consultant, and Associate Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This is an edited version of a paper titled “Laos’s High-Speed Railway Coming Round the Bend”, published in ISEAS Perspective No 101 by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.