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China, Australia to Build Final Leg of Asian Railway

Chinese and Australian engineers are gearing up to build the final stretch of track in the Trans-Asian Railway, which will link Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand with Vietnam and China through Cambodia. The Cambodian government has divided the country's railway system in two. Australia's Toll Holdings takes control of old French-built lines in the east, which run from the capital to the Thai border and south to Sihanoukville, home to one of the largest ports in the Gulf of Siam.

The China Railway Group has the contract to carry out a feasibility study that will link Phnom Penh with Snoul near this country's western border with Vietnam.

This 255-kilometer stretch will complete the Singapore-to-Kunming line, a railway connecting southeast Asia to the heart of China.

Paul Power is an advisor to the Cambodian government and team leader for the Asian Development Bank's involvement in the reconstruction of Cambodia's railways. He says the railway's economic benefit for the region and Cambodia will 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," Power said, "and the implications for that, for Cambodia in the region, are that Cambodia becomes the hub."

He says freight will provide the greatest economic benefits, particularly for shipping bulk goods like rice. The railway will be a cheaper alternative to ships and trucks.

However, the contractors first must deal with the thorny issue of resettling people living along the route. In Cambodia, poor landholders often are pushed out with little compensation to make way for commercial developments, causing considerable public anger.

Power says the companies working on the railway are aware of the problems that have afflicted other construction projects and thinks they can avoid similar difficulties.

If the resettlement issues are resolved quickly then authorities hope the first passengers from Singapore to China and beyond as far as London, will start boarding within the next two years.