Laos opens Chinese-built railway line

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Bangkok – A sleek red, blue and white bullet train departed a new Vientiane station Friday signalling the opening of Laos’ $6 billion Chinese-built railway — a project tangled in debt and high hopes of an economic boost. The 414-kilometre (260-mile) route took five years to construct under China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. Laos President Thongloun Sisoulith heralded a “new era of modern infrastructure development” for his country. “I am proud that the dreams of Lao people have come true,” he said at the opening ceremony Friday afternoon. The railway will connect the Chinese city of Kunming to the Laotian capital Vientiane, with grand plans for high-speed rail to ultimately snake down through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore. Analysts have acknowledged a potential economic boost, but have asked how infrastructure-poor Laos will pay its $1.06 billion debt liability and whether it is ready to exploit the state-of-the-art transport system. The Laos government also took out a $480 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China to cover two-thirds of its equity stake, bringing its total share of debt to $1.54 billion. But Friday afternoon was about fanfare not balance sheets. Scores of dignitaries in Vientiane waited on the red carpet waving flags at the launch ceremony before some clambered aboard for a train trip to Vang Vieng — the adventure capital. At the same time a green train left Kunming station for the maiden journey to Laos. Chinese President Xi Jinping was beamed in for the ceremony to extend his congratulations, saying the railway would “bring benefits for people of the two countries.” 

Laos, a communist-run country of 7.2 million people, previously had only four kilometres of railway tracks.

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