Plans to finally finish the massive Trans-Asia Railway have hit cost hurdles in Cambodia. The initial findings in a Chinese feasibility study shows the need to build several bridges in the Mekong River Delta will raise the final cost of linking Phnom Penh with the Vietnamese border by rail. New estimates put the cost at $600 million for the Phnom Penh to Vietnam leg.

A preliminary technical study report says that two big bridges - a thousand meter span over the Mekong River and 1,500 meter bridge over the Tonle Sap - will be the big ticket items. The Chinese-funded study, which will be published soon, estimates they will have a combined price tag of $262 million.

More than $100 million will also be spent on smaller bridges to enable safe passage across the Mekong Delta.

Cambodia has divided its railway system in two. The China Railway Group will build an entirely new 255 kilometer line in the east while Australia's Toll Holdings will take control and reconstruct old French-built lines in the west.

Derek Mayes is a board member of the Australian Business Association of Cambodia. He says the economic benefits will be enormous for the Southeast Asian economy, with rail offering a cheaper and safer alternative to road.

"I think it will be very large, it certainly will increase traffic on the rails because road transport as we know is very expensive and considerably dangerous, considering the safety aspects on the roads here," Mayes said.

The problem, though, is the initial costs. Touch Chankosal is Cambodia's undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. He says that the $600 million needed to connect Phnom Penh to Vietnam represents a huge sum for the Cambodians. The government probably will have to seek additional capital from outside the country, possibly the Asian Development Bank, if it is to be completed.

The Trans-Asian Railway project intends to use existing and new rail lines to connect all of Asia to Central Asia, South Asia and Western Europe. In all, tracks will link 28 countries, although only less than half that number has ratified the agreement with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
In Southeast Asia, the line will connect Singapore to Turkey, with tracks running through Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.