BUSAN, South Korea: For decades, officials have dreamed of a railway network spanning Asia, linking cities as diverse as Kuala Lumpur and Kabul, or Yangon and Yerevan.
Greater connections would bring remote inland regions and landlocked countries closer to vibrant coastal cities and ports, boosting commerce along the paths of ancient trade routes.
The Trans-Asian Railway Network, first conceived by the United Nations in 1960, was set to come a step closer Friday with the signing of an agreement to implement what has been dubbed the "Iron Silk Road,'' evoking the trade caravans that long ago linked Asia with Europe.
Representatives from about 40 countries were participating in a two-day Ministerial Conference on Transport, sponsored by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the U.N.'s Bangkok-based regional office.
The Trans-Asian Railway Network, which comprises 81,000 kilometers (50,000 miles) of track through more than two dozen Asian countries, follows through on a similar U.N.-sponsored road programme.
The Asian Highway Network is a 140,000-kilometer (87,500-mile) web of highways and ferry routes connecting Asia with Europe. An agreement on the network was signed in 2004 and came into effect last year.
"Transport opens up employment opportunities and helps create conditions for an improved quality of life and higher productivity,'' Kim Hak-su, a U.N. under secretary general and executive secretary of UNESCAP, told delegates.
Though signing the agreement is a big step, much work remains to be done to make the dream a reality.
The pact sets out a framework for countries to coordinate the development of important routes, and a working group will serve as a forum for policy makers and rail managers to work out details, especially financing, Kim said in a statement last month.
The South Korean city of Busan, one of the world's biggest container ports and the host of the conference, illustrates some of the lingering political difficulties of forging greater continental rail links.
A U.N. map of the proposed network includes the Korean peninsula, however, a plan by the divided North and South to restore rail links severed by the Korean War remains hostage to political tensions.
North Korea, a member country of the network, didn't send a delegation to the conference amid ongoing tensions over its nuclear programme.
Geographically isolated countries welcome the idea of forging more rail and improved links.
Landlocked Armenia, which currently has only one operational outside rail connection to a seaport in Georgia, hopes greater eventual access will reduce the cost of moving goods overland, said Hrant Beglaryan, first deputy minister of transport and communication.
"Any kind of regional project which is related to cooperation in the field of transport is very important for us,'' he said. - AP
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