The China-Laos Railway is poised to take Lao villagers to the wider world
“When trains start rolling, we can ride atop the rails I laid,” Barlee exclaimed excitedly during a video call with his family. He was beaming without any trace of exhaustion after a night shift at the construction site of the Luang Prabang section of the China-Laos Railway (CLR). A 40-year-old construction worker from Attapeu Province in Laos, Barlee joined the rail project in 2018. He first performed steel bar binding and concrete pouring at the project’s Vientiane and Muang Xay beam manufacturing plants before being transferred to the Vientiane welding base to practice anchoring with sulfur mortar. He now works at Luang Prabang track laying base.
Construction work is considered a tough and tedious job, but Barlee embraces the work. “Now I’m full of beans every day,” he quipped. “Working for the CLR has enabled me to seize a better life through my own efforts. I hope my children will study abroad in China to receive good education.”
Planned to be completed by December 2021, the CLR represents the hopes of Barlee as well as his peers in both China and Laos.
Getting Closer to the Goal
Starting from the China-Laos border in the north, the 422.4-kilometer-long tracks of the CLR stretch south through the Lao provinces of Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane before reaching the national capital. 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. Not only will the railway be linked to China, it will also be connected to railroads of other Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Construction of the CLR provided job opportunities for many locals like Barlee. Before joining the project, Barlee and his wife subsisted by farming and raising chickens. To earn the money necessary to cover tuition for their three children, they would find temporary jobs outside the village during the farming off-season, but it was hard to make ends meet. In July 2018, a dam failure in Attapeu Province left Barlee’s and five other villages severely damaged.
With villagers in the disaster-struck communities worried about their safety and livelihood, the CLR project organized two task forces to assist in the rescue and restore four bridges destroyed in the accident. Barely a month later, the original wooden trestle bridges had been replaced by much firmer steel structures. Local villagers were enlisted to join the railway project, which proved a reliable first step to rebuilding their lives.
“That was the best decision I ever made,” Barlee said. “By joining the CLR project, I received professional technical training. My income has now multiplied, which enabled me to clear my family’s debts and buy a mobile phone. The phone was fairly costly for me, but I will use it to take photos of what I’m doing here at the construction site and show them to my fellow villagers when I return home.”
Kham Phuang Ta Va, a native of Luang Prabang and now a skilled welder, knew nothing about welding back in 2017. One day that year, 26-year-old 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, who patiently explained the safety regulations to him. Inspired by the slogan “Benefiting the Lao People, Linking the World” displayed at the camp, Kham Phuang Ta Va felt honored to become employed improving his hometown and country and enabling 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 the project’s training school for Lao employees, he was promoted to head the Lao welding team. He set high standards and strict requirements for every welded junction under his purview and refused to accept any flaws. He was also enthusiastic about sharing his skills and experience with other welders. “My colleagues and I are excited to get closer to our goals while witnessing the dramatic changes on the CLR with each passing day,” said Kham Phuang Ta Va.
In a speech at the 12th China-ASEAN Expo on September 18, 2015, then Lao Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad expounded on Laos’ goal of transforming 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.
Laos abounds in mountains but lacks roads. How can the country be connected to the rest of the world? The CLR provides one clear answer. Completion of the CLR is crucial to the construction of the China-Thailand Railway. When the CLR reaches Thailand and stretches further to Singapore, a railway network covering Southeast Asia will take shape. 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 key project in The Government of Lao PDR’s 8th Five–Year Plan (2016-2020). The key links surrounding Laos on all sides are already apparent, and the railway connected with them is set to help Laos emerge as a “transnational hub” of the region.
About 80 percent of Laos’ territory is covered by mountains and plateaus, and over 60 percent of the CLR goes over bridges and through tunnels. “This railway was drilled and raised, not paved!” many marveled.
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 would be responsible for 70 percent of the investment, and Laos responsible for the remainder.
Construction of the railway continued despite harsh environmental conditions. About 80 percent of terrain along the line is mountains and plateaus, including land that humans had seldom braved. The unfavorable geological conditions such as karst landforms, fault fracture zones, and carbon mudstones with frequent adverse phenomena such as flooding and landslides created loads of work for construction engineers. Since the CLR commenced construction in 2016, the project team has maintained all-out efforts to continue making headway and overcoming seemingly endless daunting challenges.
As of March 19, 2021, 98 percent of civil engineering construction (including tunnels, bridges, and the track bed) was complete, and 62.2 percent of other engineering work including track laying, electrical engineering, and station building was done. Preparations for transport operations are now underway. The timetable and train schedule have been decided, and Lao employees training and management system development are proceeding smoothly. The CLR project has helped boost local employment and cultivate a pool of technical personnel. A total of 103,934 jobs had been directly created in Laos, and 927 courses had been taught in the training school established especially for Lao employees.
A Lao tourist town, Vangvieng is located between the national capital of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, an ancient capital. Previously, weak public transportation options kept many potential visitors from reaching the city. After the CLR is completed, a trip from Vientiane to Vangvieng will be safer and take one hour instead of four. The line is already kindling opportunities for growth, according to Bounmy Phommavongsa, head of the Information, Culture and Tourism Office of Vangvieng
Local communities along the rail route have also benefited from construction of the CLR. Thanks to the project, a 250-meter-long lane leading to a primary school in Naxaithong District of Vientiane Prefecture was transformed from a muddy trail into a neat cement road, making the journey to school much easier even on rainy days. The construction team also helped a village near the project site build a water pipeline as the rails came through. “We used to drill our own shallow wells or carry water down from the mountains,” revealed the village head. “Now we have easy access to clean drinking water. Many villagers grow fruit here. When the railway opens, we will be able to travel further away and conveniently transport our fruit.”
On July 30, 2020, then Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith made his sixth visit to the construction site of the CLR. During the visit, he praised the changes in the urban landscape along the line as well as the economic and social progress in areas along the entire line since the project was launched. He also applauded the project’s carefully-designed engineering plans and well-organized on-site construction work. In the process of relocating the last station of the entire line from Vientiane South to Thanaleng, the revised engineering plan to build a bridge instead of laying tracks on land made significant contributions to helping the Lao government reduce the costs of land acquisition, protect the interests of local residents along the route, and maintain social stability, Thongloun noted.
In addition to the CLR, China and Laos have also made joint efforts in road construction. Roads are the primary means of land transportation in Laos, but 90 percent of them were paved with gravel before China began participating in construction of higher-grade roads in the country. In the 1960s, to assist neighboring Vietnam’s defense in the war against U.S. forces, Laos allowed China to build Route 13, a “lifeline” traversing the entire country. In the decades since, the thoroughfare has served as a major channel for China-Laos cooperation in trade and tourism. Today, Route 13 remains the busiest national highway in Laos.
In 2008, the 1,880-kilometer-long Kunming-Bangkok Highway linking southwest China and Southeast Asian countries was completed. Jointly developed by China, Laos, Thailand, and the Asian Development Bank, the international road has helped reduce the cost of land transportation and facilitate trade and tourism between countries along the route.
On December 20, 2020, the first phase of the China-Laos expressway, running from the Lao capital Vientiane to the tourist city Vangvieng, commenced operational service 13 months ahead of schedule. Another joint infrastructure project involving China, the Vientiane-Vangvieng section is a two-way four-lane expressway with a total length of 111 kilometers and a designed speed of 80 to 100 kilometers per hour. Meeting both Chinese and ASEAN technical standards, the road project consists of one tunnel, seven interchanges, 11 separated interchanges, 36 bridges, and 402 culverts. Two parking areas, three service areas, and eight toll gates were also built.
The first of its kind in Laos, the China-Laos expressway starts from the Mohan-Boten border and runs 440 kilometers south to the Lao national capital. When this arterial road connecting Vientiane, the capital, and provinces of Vientiane, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, and Oudomxay becomes fully functional, travel time from the China-Laos border to the Lao capital will be cut substantially from 20 to five hours. A phased development plan of the whole project has been implemented, and construction of the Vientiane-Vangvieng section was included in the China-Laos joint statement issued in 2017 and the action plan on building a China-Laos community with a shared future agreed in 2019.
Previously, many Lao people could only dream of traveling 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 aspirations reach further. The China-Laos Railway leads to an exciting future.