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Euro-Asian Countries Agree to Improve Transport Links

Transport Ministers from 19 European and Asian countries have agreed to continue work on developing transport links they say will act as an economic boon to the whole region. The UN Economic Commission for Europe, which hosted the meeting, says the unprecedented economic growth of Euro-Asian region is at risk if the current transport situation is not addressed. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The Euro-Asian transport ministers say they hope to reopen the fabled Silk Road that saw merchants and pilgrims travel from China to the Mediterranean Sea centuries ago.

According to preliminary estimates, revitalizing this ancient route will take tens, if not, hundreds of billions of dollars and many years to complete. Still, transport ministers from this region say they are committed to building a rail network that will connect their countries regardless of the time and money involved.

Barry Cable is director of the Transport and Tourism Division of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

He says the Asia-Europe transport project will provide opportunities for increased traffic between these two regions. "What is important is a revitalization, a rebirth of the Silk Road system which will provide an opportunity, not only for the landlocked countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. But it will provide opportunities for the more distant areas away from the sea in both Asia and Europe to benefit from much better transport connections," he said.

The Euro-Asian Transport Links Project, which began five years ago, covers road, rail, and inland waterways. Its aim is to improve the poor transport infrastructure, congested ports, hinterland connections, as well as cumbersome border crossing procedures.

Nations involved in the project agree these problems are hampering the development of the region.

UN Economic Affairs officer in Transportation, Miodrag Pesut, says it takes about 35 to 40 days to ship containers by maritime transport. He says once the rail links are operational, that trip will be cut in half.

"In terms of costs, rail transport is still not competitive with the maritime. But, for businesses, the current dilemma is either delivery is just in time, cutting short this trip by half or still using the railways which are a little bit less competitive in terms of price, but much more in terms of time," he said.

Huge projects already are under way in countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran and China. China says it is investing more than $12.5 billion to expand its rail system.

The expense is being borne by national governments. But, a number of development banks are making loans and the countries are entering into public-private partnerships.