So far, freight on new Laos-China high-speed railway only goes one way

Goods from China are zipping across the border while products from Laos are getting stuck there.
2022.01.24
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This animated photo shows a passenger train at a station on the Laos-China high-speed railway.
Photo: RFA

Laos is eager to begin shipping goods to China via the newly completed Lao-China railway, but coronavirus controls at the border are preventing exporters from cashing in on what was supposed to be a rail freight bonanza.

A centerpiece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative of state-led lending for infrastructure projects to tie countries across Asia to China, the railway is supposed to offer land-locked Laos the promise of closer integration with the world’s second largest economy.

The train connects the capital Vientiane with Boten on the Chinese border over 254 miles north before heading to China’s southwestern city of Kunming.

Rail freight from China has been flowing into Laos, but the reverse route into China has been bottled up as Beijing restricts entry to try to contain several COVID-19 outbreaks ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.

Laos’ government has been preparing to start shipping freight to its northern neighbor in the meantime.

“We haven’t sent any freight to China yet, but our government is working on it, and the import-export companies will be shipping soon,” an official of the Lao Ministry of Public Works, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Lao Service Jan. 21.

“Import export companies should register with the relevant department,” the official said.

Graphic: RFA

The railway not only provides Laos with a link to China. It promises to do the same for Thailand, which lies just south of Vientiane, once the COVID-19 restrictions in China are lifted. About 100 containers of Thai goods destined for China had been held up at a logistics center in a suburb of Vientiane after arriving there on Dec. 4, Chanthone Sitthixay, president of the Vientiane Logistics Park Company, told local media on Dec. 31.

But on Jan. 20, Alongkorn Ponlaboot, counselor to the Thai minister of agriculture, posted on Facebook that some Thai freight had gotten through.

“Thailand has shipped 20 containers of rice weighing 1,000 tons via the Laos-China railway to a city in eastern China. This is the first time that Thailand has transported goods to China via railway,” Alongkorn Ponlaboot wrote.

Many companies in Laos, however, are still waiting.

 “Our company has not shipped any freight to China yet. We’re only shipping goods within Laos,” an employee of a Vientiane import-export company, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA. “I don’t know why only China has been able to ship freight through the railway to Laos and Thailand but not vice versa.”

Other companies are shipping goods to China the old-fashioned way.

“We’ve been sending goods to China, but by road, not yet by rail,” said a worker for another company, who declined to be named.

Khampheng Xaysompheng, Laos’ minister of industry and trade, has asked the Laos-China Railway Company to improve the infrastructure to all the stations along the route to support more freight shipments.

Currently, only three of the stations — Natoei Station in Luang Namtha Province, Vang Vieng Station in Vientiane Province, and Vientiane South Station in the capital — are open for goods transport.

Another seven freight stations have been completed, along with 11 passenger stations.                                                  

Translated by Max Avery. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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