By Wang Fengjuan, Peng Yongqing
The construction site of the Luang Prabang section of the China-Laos Railway (CLR) glows under splashes of electric sparks as work proceeds. Despite streams of sweat flowing down his cheeks, Kham Phuang Ta Va manages to maintain a radiant smile. Electric welding is considered a tough and tedious job, but for Kham Phuang Ta Va, a technician working on the CLR’s Luang Prabang section, the job is enabling him to seize a better life through his own efforts.
From the Mohan-Boten border area between China and Laos, the tracks run 414 kilometers south to reach the Lao capital of Vientiane. The CLR is China’s first overseas railway project to be primarily funded and built by Chinese companies, jointly operated by both countries and connected to China’s railway network. It represents the hopes of Kham Phuang Ta Va as well as his fellow citizens across the country. The Laos-China Railway construction has both historical and modern significance, according to Bounnhang Vorachith, general secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Central Committee and president of Laos. It is conducive to promoting Laos’ economic development, creating job opportunities, enhancing living standards, achieving Laos’ strategic ambition of transforming from landlocked to land-linked, and bringing the country to a new rail-supported development phase, he noted.
Anticipation of a ‘Railway Craftsman’
Kham Phuang Ta Va was born in 1984 in Luang Prabang. By age 26, he was famous throughout his village for a mastery of house building skills before joining the CLR project as a welder in 2017. Thanks to his outstanding performance over the past few years, the young man has been awarded honorable titles “Railway Craftsman” and “Excellent Foreign Employee.”
One day in 2017, Kham Phuang Ta Va saw a fleet of engineering trucks carrying Chinese workers into the depths of the forest in northern Luang Prabang. He had no idea what was going on but learned from fellow villagers that they were tunneling through the mountain for a railway to Vientiane. His curiosity led him to explore because his knowledge about trains was extremely limited.
Kham Phuang Ta Va left his hometown on a motorcycle. Upon learning that a riverside camp of the CLR project was recruiting workers, he immediately applied. But the challenging natural environment and brutal sunlight gave him cause to hesitate, which was noticed by a local project manager from PowerChina, who patiently explained their safety regulations to him. Inspired by the slogan “Benefiting the Lao People, Linking the World” splashed across the camp, Kham Phuang Ta Va felt honored to work to improve his hometown and country and enable people around the world to marvel at the “Lao speed.”
Kham Phuang Ta Va practiced hard and successfully passed the skills examination. After improving his steel-structure welding techniques at a local training school, he was promoted to head the Lao welding team. Following the motto of “work diligently and stay down-to-earth,” he set high standards and strict requirements on every single weld junction under his purview and refused to accept any quality flaws. He was also enthusiastic about sharing his skills and experience with other welders.
“My income has multiplied five or six times, and now I have a house under construction, which I never dreamed of happening before joining the railway project,” Kham Phuang Ta Va smiles. “After the project is complete, I hope to continue working for the railway company on maintenance.”
Many other local villagers have followed suit. Riding motorcycles into the construction site deep in the mountains, such young men receive professional technical training before formally joining the construction team. They are excited to strive towards their goals while witnessing the dramatic changes on the CLR with each passing day.
Predicament of a Landlocked Country
A landlocked nation on the Indochina Peninsula, Laos is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. It abounds in mountains but lacks roads. Across its 236,800 square kilometers of territory are only 3.5 kilometers of railways, fourth least of all 146 countries with railways.
As China increased its interaction with ASEAN in recent years, Laos has become poised to be hub of regional connectivity for land transportation. In a speech at the 12th China-ASEAN Expo on September 18, 2015, Laos Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad illustrated Laos’ goal of transitioning from a landlocked country to a land linked country. A term coined by Laos as a development strategy, “land-linked country” aptly encapsulates the vision of the landlocked nation.
How will these links happen? The CLR provides one clear answer. Only after the CLR is completed can a China-Thailand Railway be possible. With the CLR extended to Thailand and further to Singapore, a railway network covering Southeast Asia will soon emerge. For Laos, the CLR is the clearest route out of its current predicament. Alongside connection to the rest of the world, the railway will stimulate trade, investment and job opportunities. For these reasons, the CLR was listed as the national top key project in The Government of Lao PDR’s 8th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). The dots surrounding Laos on all sides are already apparent, and the railway is set to connect them as Laos emerges as a “transnational hub” of the region.
According to plans, afterthe CLR is completed by 2021, a trip from the Chinese border to Vientiane will take only four hours. Not only will this railway link to China, it will also meet railroads of other neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia, enabling Laos to overcome its landlocked status and propel tourism.
Bilateral discussions on the CLR joint project began back in April 2010, and not until 2015 did China and Laos sign an intergovernmental railway cooperation agreement. According to the agreement, China is responsible for 70 percent of the investment, while Laos is responsible for the remainder. The railway links the Mohan-Boten border gate in northern Laos to the capital of Vientiane and passes Muang Xay, Luang Prabang and Vang Viang. Of its 414 kilometers, bridges make up nearly 62 kilometers, and 75 tunnels account for 198 kilometers. At the end of June 2019, the pier for Manxiang No.2 Bridge on the CLR’s Yuxi-Mohan line (Chinese section) was completed.
Construction of the railway has continued amid harsh environmental conditions. About 80 percent of the land along the line is covered by mountains and plateaus, including areas that humans had seldom braved. The unfavorable geological conditions such as karst landforms, fault fracture zones and carbon mudstones as well as highly possible adverse phenomena such as flooding and landslides created massive amounts of work for construction engineers.
The good news kept rolling in. On July 3, the Manmai No. 2 tunnel of the CLR’s Yuxi-Mohan line broke through, marking success of one phase of construction of the railway in Chinese territory. On July 11, concrete casting for the continuous beam of the first span of the double-lane super major bridge over the Munai River along the Yuxi Mohan line was completed, kicking off the construction phase of the bridge’s beams. On July 16, the main work on the front of Yexianggu Station of the CLR was completed, and construction of ancillary facilities surrounding the station began.
“The railway construction has proceeded smoothly,” beams Ju Guojiang, chairman of the Laos-China Railway Co., Ltd. “So far, we have completed 65 percent of civil engineering construction. We have broken 13 tunnels, built more than 40 percent of planned bridges and prepared 87 percent of land rails, which means all civil engineering construction is expected to be done by the end of 2019.” Construction began in December 2016, and the railway is planned to begin service around the end of 2021.
Since the project was launched, local procurement of gravel, ballasts and cement has exceeded US$500 million, 32,000 job opportunities have been created for local Lao villagers, and the project has also spilled over infrastructure improvements in villages along the line. Builders paved roads, dug water canals, renovated houses and laid water pipes in settlements along the way.
To increase employment for Lao people, Sinohydro Bureau 3 Co. under PowerChina opened a training school in November 2017 to cultivate steel workers, electricians, welders, concrete workers and carpenters. “Our goal is to create benefits for the local people throughout construction,” asserts training school head Liu Qianli. “The training program aims to foster professionals for the construction of the China-Laos Railway, but also to improve the employment capacity of the country.” According to him, the school plans to offer 12 classes and has already graduated more than 300 Lao trainees, most of whom are playing crucial roles in CLR construction.
More than providing temporary jobs, the Sinohydro Bureau 3 Co. hopes to help trainees master a skill that can be used to ensure better future earnings. Outstanding graduates receive a certificate of completion carrying seals of both the Department of Labor and Social Welfare of Laos and Sinohydro Bureau 3 Co., and a fitting job is arranged for them.
Apeng was among the first group of trainees. Thanks to the teachers’ instruction and his efforts, he is now able to independently complete steel bar processing work, which earns 3 million kips (US$360) a month, far higher than the local average. He is preparing to wed, which he claims would not have been possible without the money he has earned from his job with the Sinohydro Bureau 3 Co.
Before enrolling in the training school, Akang primarily subsisted by hunting in the mountains. Now, after paying his bills, he still saves money each month. “I am grateful for the welding skill I learned from the Sinohydro Bureau 3 Co. and the stable job it provides me,” he asserts. “I hope to continue working here for a long time.”
“I want to visit China to experience its unique scenery and culture,” Akang adds, revealing that he previously knew nothing about China. The training school drew him closer to the Chinese people and Chinese companies, providing a window into the country.
Kham Phuang Ta Va and other people like him have dreams. Previously, a common dream would be to travel beyond their remote village to see the golden Pha That Luang stupa and the former royal temple of Haw Phra Kaew in Vientiane. But now their dreams extend as far as China, where the Great Wall and the Forbidden City are wonderful attractions to explore.
The China-Laos Railway promises an exciting future.