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China's high-speed rail plans could put Kunming at center of Eurasia

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Landlocked at the crossroads of China, Southeast Asia and South Asia, Kunming first gained international attention as the terminus of an ambitious French rail project connecting French Indochina with Yunnan.

Back then it might not have been difficult to imagine a pan-Asian rail network centered upon the city, but the turbulence of the 20th Century fragmented the continent, impeding the flow of people and goods across borders.

In recent decades relations among Asian countries have experienced a general thawing and once again, rail transport is bringing Kunming's crossroads status into international focus. But this time around it is high-speed rail rather than the locomotive that will drive Kunming's resurgence as a transport hub.

Within a decade, Kunming will be at the center of a high-speed rail network that extends westward across India and Pakistan to Iran, southward to Singapore on the South China Sea, eastward to Xiamen and Shanghai on the Chinese coast and northward to Chengdu – if Beijing has its way.

After India's decision last year to pull out of the plan to rebuild the Stilwell Road connecting northeast India with Kunming, it may be surprising to learn that Beijing and New Delhi are discussing a Chinese-built high-speed rail line crossing. The Hindu reports:

One proposal involves a line running from Kunming, in south-western Yunnan province, to New Delhi, Lahore and on to Tehran, according to Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and one of the country's leading railway consultants.

"India is a relatively small country with a huge population," he told The Hindu in an interview. "It will be too costly to build highways for India, so our high-speed rail link project will improve transportation efficiency and resources. I am confident we can finally reach an agreement, which will greatly help exports to the Indian Ocean direction." He said talks with Indian officials were "friendly," and they had been "welcoming" of the idea.

It appears that the long-planned rail network connecting Kunming with Singapore via cities in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia will also be a high-speed rail network, according to Chinese media.

Since beginning to develop its domestic high-speed rail network, China has begun to market its growing prowess in the industry to other countries. State-owned Chinese companies are already involved in projects in Venezuela and Turkey and Chinese companies plan on bidding for upcoming high-speed rail project tenders in the United States.

China recently announced its intention to build a high-speed rail link between Beijing and London. Chinese officials are predicting the completion of a China-built Eurasian high-speed rail network by as early as 2025.

On the domestic front, a new dedicated high-speed passenger line from Kunming to Shanghai is under construction and expected to be completed by 2015. The new route, which will run through provincial capitals Guiyang, Changsha, Nanchang and Hangzhou, will cut travel time from about 37 hours to around 10 hours.

Plans also exist to upgrade existing tracks between Kunming and Chengdu and build a new direct line to Chongqing that will deliver passengers from Kunming in about three hours instead of the current 19-plus hours.

Finally, construction commenced on a high-speed line from Kunming to Nanning last December. There has been some recent speculation that this line will eventually extend to Xiamen, and even Taiwan via tunnel.

China plans on having 42 high-speed rail lines by 2012, covering 13,000 kilometers, which would make it the world's largest rail network of its kind. The new lines will use China's homegrown high-speed rail system, which is a mix of foreign locomotive and carriage technology and domestically designed switching and control systems that is capable of speeds up to 350 km/hour (217 mph).

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