Asian countries are taking a first step toward realizing a long-delayed plan to connect much of Asia to Europe by rail. A major goal of the project is to boost economic growth in the less-developed, landlocked regions of Asia.
What is known as the "Iron Silk Road" would span as many as 28 countries - from Indonesia in the southeast, through North, Central and South Asia, and on to Turkey, at the gateway to Europe.
As envisioned, new railways throughout Asia will be built, and old lines will be upgraded. The 81,000 kilometer railway will connect Europe not only to big countries like China, India and Russia, but also to such smaller nations as Laos, Uzbekistan and Armenia.
The Trans-Asia railway was first conceived by the United Nations in 1960, but has faced decades of bureaucratic, technical and security delays. But this began to change Friday with 18 nations signing the Trans-Asia Railway Network agreement. The signing took place at a U.N. regional transport meeting in Busan, South Korea.
Barry Cable, transport and tourism director of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific, says the agreement is a significant step toward the project's realization.
"It lays out a framework for cooperation among railways in the region, and, very importantly, it identifies international stations of importance," he said.
Cable says these train stations will become major trans-shipment points for goods - the land equivalent of major seaports, which can open more remote parts of Asia to the outside world.
"We expect these railway 'dry ports' to be the new centers of economic growth," he added.
Twelve of the world's landlocked countries are in Asia, and 10 of those are members of the Trans-Asia Railway network. Only Afghanistan and the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, among the 12, have not joined.
Cable says once the agreement is signed, participating nations will be able to borrow money to build new rail lines or improve existing lines. Countries that did not sign the agreement Friday have two years to do so.
However, obstacles to connecting Asia fully by rail remain. Work on reconnecting rail lines between South and North Korea was completed in 2003, for instance, and this in theory would become part of the Trans-Asia network.
But those new rail lines have not yet been put into service, because of tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.