The Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) is a project to create an integrated freight railway network across Europe and Asia. The TAR is a project of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
The project was initiated in the 1950s, with the objective of providing a continuous 8,750 miles (14,080 km) rail link between Singapore and Istanbul, Turkey, with possible further connections to Europe and Africa. At the time shipping and air travel were not as well developed, and the project promised to significantly reduce shipping times and costs between Europe and Asia. Progress in developing the TAR was hindered by political and economic obstacles throughout the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. By the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and normalisation of relations between some countries improved the prospects for creating a rail network across the Asian continent.
The TAR was seen as a way to accommodate the huge increases in international trade between Eurasian nations and facilitate the increased movements of goods between countries. It was also seen as a way to improve the economies and accessibility of landlocked countries like Laos, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and the Central Asian republics. Much of the railway network already exists as part of the Eurasian Land Bridge, although some significant gaps remain. A big challenge is the differences in rail gauge across Eurasia. Four different major rail gauges (which measures the distance between rails) exist across the continent: most of Europe, as well as Turkey, Iran, China, and the Koreas use the 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+1⁄2 in) gauge, known as Standard gauge; Russia, and the former Soviet republics use a 1,520 mm (4 ft 11+27⁄32 in) gauge; Finland uses a 1,524 mm (5 ft) gauge, both known as Russian gauge; the railways in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka use the 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in) gauge, known as Indian gauge; and most of Southeast Asia has 1,000 mm (3 ft 3+3⁄8 in) metre gauge. For the most part the TAR would not change national gauges; mechanized facilities would be built to move shipping containers from train to train at the breaks of gauge.
By 2001, four corridors had been studied as part of the plan:
The Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement is an agreement signed on 10 November 2006, by seventeen Asian nations as part of a United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) effort to build a transcontinental railway network between Europe and Pacific ports in China. The plan has sometimes been called the "Iron Silk Road" in reference to the historical Silk Road trade routes. UNESCAP's Transport & Tourism Division began work on the initiative in 1992 when it launched the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development project.
The agreement formally came into force on 11 June 2009.
The Trans-Asian Railway system will consist of four main railway routes. The existing Trans-Siberian railway, which connects Moscow to Vladivostok, will be used for a portion of the network in Russia. Another corridor to be included will connect China to Korea, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. In 2003, the president of Kazakhstan proposed building a standard gauge link from Dostyk (on the Chinese border) to Gorgan in Iran; it has not yet been built.
Complicating the plan is the differences in rail gauges currently in use across the continent. While China, Iran and Turkey use 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+1⁄2 in) standard gauge tracks, tracks of Russia and Central Asia are gauged at 1,520 mm (4 ft 11+27⁄32 in). India's and Pakistan's tracks are 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in) gauge, the tracks of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia are 1,000 mm (3 ft 3+3⁄8 in) metre gauge gauge with some dual gauge track near the China–Vietnam border and within Bangladesh, and tracks in Indonesia and Japan are 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge. This leads to time-consuming interchanges or reloading to handle the break of gauge at main connecting points in the network.
Other standards to consider include allowing for interoperability:
Transportation and railway ministers from forty one nations participated in the week-long conference held in Busan, South Korea, where the agreement was formulated. The proposed 80,900-km railway network will originate from the Pacific seaboard of Asia and end on the doorsteps of Europe. The agreement's cosigners included: (PARTICIPATING COUNTRIES)
The 28 countries that did not sign the agreement at the conference had until 31 December 2007, to join and ratify the agreement.
On 5 May 2007, officials in Bangladesh announced that the nation will sign on to the agreement at an upcoming meeting in New York City. The plan for the network includes three lines between India and Myanmar that traverse Bangladesh. India made a similar announcement on 17 May 2007. As part of the agreement, India will build and rehabilitate rail links with neighboring Myanmar in projects that are estimated to cost more than ₹ 29.41 billion (US$730 million). Bangladesh finally signed the agreement on 10 November 2007.
India's Look-East connectivity policy has resulted in the launch of several connectivity projects with China and ASEAN nations.
The Northern Corridor was working already in the 1960s, although at first only for Soviet Union-China trade. The Southern corridor has been opened up after 2000. Successes so far include: