Five years into the 2030 Agenda: Time to give a big push to railway transport

3 Dec 2019

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In 1814, George Stephenson constructed the first steam locomotive that led to the Industrial Revolution. Nearly 200 years later, railways are at a critical juncture in its evolution as means of transport. As railways are environmentally friendly and energy efficient, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has provided a new window of opportunity to boost railway transport.

Promoting railway transport has become imperative to effectively deal with the negative externalities of transport that have increasingly become evident. It is now widely acknowledged that sustainable transport is central to sustainable development and railways are central to enhance sustainable transport.

In this regard, the Trans-Asian Railway Network (TARN) formalized through intergovernmental agreement has a significant role to play in revitalizing international railway transport in the region and beyond. TARN was developed by ESCAP members as a coordinated plan to develop a regional railway network to meet the growing needs of intra and interregional trade and transport.

Trans-Asian Railway Network
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Since entry into force of the intergovernmental agreement on TARN in 2009, the Working Group established to monitor implementation of the agreement has met five times. These meetings took place amid the rapid increase of freight trains from China to Europe, and therefore issues such as linkages of the TARN with dry ports, seaports and operationalization of international rail-based transport corridors received increasing attention from the railways of the region.

In addition, during the fifth meeting in Busan, Republic of Korea in 2017, the Working Group for the first time in its deliberations recognized that the operational readiness of the network would improve only if infrastructure development is accompanied by progress on soft issues. These include facilitation measures to ease customs clearance procedures, the development of efficient electronic data interchange among railways and with other entities, such as customs or logistics service providers. As a result, the working group recommended developing a framework.

Accordingly, a draft framework on enhancing efficiency of railway border crossings along the Trans-Asian Railway Network was developed by ESCAP. It identified four key issues for further enhancing the efficiency of international railway transport along the TARN: (a) electronic exchange of information between railways as well as among railways and other stakeholders; (b) harmonization of customs formalities for international railway transport;(c) dealing efficiently with break of gauge; and (d) comprehensive measuring performance of railway border crossing.

With this background, the Sixth Meeting of the Working Group on TARN to be held from 10 to 11 December 2019 in Bangkok will confer further action on these and related issues. Among the key items for discussion would be ways to implement the recommendations contained in the draft framework, particularly on harmonizing the various initiatives on electronic information exchange among railways and other stakeholders, which are being pursued by railways in the region.

Harmonizing these initiatives has become imperative to avoid multiplicity and divergence in exchanging electronic information as it could undermine the seamless flow of information along international railway corridors, thereby adversely affecting the competitiveness of railway transport. These initiatives could be formalized through an appropriate arrangement on harmonization of electronic information exchange for the facilitation of international railway transport in the region.

Apart from this, the Working Group will also discuss issues related to operationalizing the TARN network including inspecting and monitoring of railway infrastructure using aerial drones; establishing corridor management mechanism(s) to enhance coordination among railways for effective functioning of international railway corridors; facilitating international passenger transport; using new technologies to enhance port hinterland connectivity; and enhancing railway safety.

TARN is playing a pivotal role in railway development by efficiently connecting national railway networks into a regional network, creating catalytic and synergetic effects for economic and social development among member countries and providing a foundational pillar for regional economic cooperation and integration. An efficient TARN would support realization of many Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) including targets under SDG2: Zero Hunger, SDG7: Affordable and Clean Energy, and SDG9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

The Working Group provides a regional platform for member countries to discuss persistent and emerging issues in international railway transport along the TARN with a view to recommend measures to make it more efficient and reliable. This would provide an opportunity for increasing the modal share of railways and enhancing the sustainability of transport networks. Given the enormity of the task for the railways ahead, this opportunity should not be missed.

Related SDGs: Goal 2: Zero hunger, Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy, Goal 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure