The Trans-Asian Railway network now comprises 117,500 km of railway lines serving 28 member countries. Much like yesterday's Silk Road, today's Trans-Asian Railway aims to serve cultural exchanges and trade within Asia and between Asia and Europe. However, the network covers a much wider territory than its legendary predecessor and, needless to say, reaches a much larger population.
The idea of linking the railway networks of the region in order to provide international connections not only between the countries of the region but also with the Middle Eastern and European systems was first expressed in 1960. However, the political and economic context of the region at that time was not conducive to the concept.
In 1992, recognizing the political and economic changes that had taken place in the region from the mid-1980s onwards, the Commission renewed its interest in the development of region-wide infrastructure networks and launched the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) project at the Commission Session in April 1992.
From 1994 to 2001, with financial assistance from donor countries, the ESCAP secretariat collaborated with Member states to define railway line of international importance through four corridor studies that covered all subregions. In addition to identifying routes, the studies reviewed minimum technical and commercial requirements for the smooth operation of the network. The consensual result of the studies became known as the ‘Trans-Asian Railway Network.’
From 2002 onwards, the ESCAP secretariat worked with railway organizations to test the operational readiness of the network and enhance its visibility through the demonstration runs of container block-trains along the northern corridor of the network. Between November 2003 and July 2004, four such runs were organized, including three between Asia and Europe.
Recognizing that the network would reach its full operational capabilities through greater harmonization of standards and acknowledging the need for a regional framework to discuss related issues, Member States negotiated an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Trans-Asian Railway Network. The final text of the Agreement was adopted by the Commission at its 62nd session in April 2006 and was opened for signature on 10 November 2006 in Busan, Republic of Korea. The Agreement entered into force on 11 June 2009.
ESCAP promotes the development of the Trans-Asian Railway network as part of its overall goal to see the development of an international, integrated, intermodal transport and logistics system for the region, along with the Asian Highway, dry ports and facilitation measures.