An Ambitious China-backed railway project connecting two economic centers in Myanmar with Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China, will cost almost US$9 billion and final decisions on the specific details of the construction are expected to be made by the end of this year.
As a part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is itself part of Beijing’s grand infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a feasibility study for the Muse-Mandalay standard-gauge railway has been carried out.
Last October, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed by two state-owned companies, the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEG) (formerly the China Railway Group Ltd.) and Myanmar Railways.
During the second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in late April, China handed over a feasibility report on the Muse-Mandalay Railway project to Myanmar’s Minister for Transport and Communications U Thant Sin Maung.
Myanmar Railways experts are currently scrutinising the Muse-Mandalay feasibility report and making serious decisions regarding routes, bridges, tunnels and the exact locations of stations.
The Managing Director of Myanmar Railways U Ba Myint said in a press conference in Naypyitaw on Monday that the construction of the railway will cost $8.9 billion according to the study.
The new railway line aims to cut the travel time between Mandalay and Muse to just three hours. Currently, Mandalay is connected to Muse via Lashio by the national highway. The drive normally takes more than eight hours.
Although there is an existing railway line from Mandalay to Lashio, U Ba Myint said, the entire Muse-Mandalay railway will be constructed on new tracks. Currently, the experts have chosen to implement a design speed of 160 kilometres per hour (99 mph) which is among China’s three proposed options of 120, 160 and 200 kilometres per hour.
A main new station is expected to be constructed in Peleik Township approximately 30 minutes from Mandalay.
The Mandalay-Muse railway project will be 431 kilometres (268 miles) long and will connect with the Chinese Rail Network at the border town of Ruili in Yunnan province. It is expected to be a key part of the economic corridor.
Muse, on the Myanmar side of border with Yunnan province, is the largest trade portal between the two nations. Mandalay is central Myanmar’s commercial centre and the country’s second largest city. The railway is expected to become a lifeline for China-Myanmar trade.
The Muse-Mandalay railway is also the initial stage in a strategic railway link that Beijing plans to build, with a parallel expressway, from Ruili to Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State, along with a separate road running through northern Myanmar, India’s northeastern states and Bangladesh.
In 2011, Beijing and Naypyitaw signed an MOU agreeing to build a railway from Ruili to Kyaukphyu via Muse. The entire rail line was to run 810 kilometres. However, the government of then-President U Thein Sein suspended the project following strong local objection. The agreement expired in 2014.
Minister of Transport and Communications U Thant Sin Maung said the railway is a priority project and part of Myanmar’s national transport master plan. Currently, China is implementing five priority transportation corridors in Myanmar.
The Muse-Mandalay railway would be part of the South Transportation Corridor section of the Trans Asian Railway Network (TAR), a project implemented by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
“The [feasibility] study provided many options. We are still negotiating every particular detail to make sure the routes do not harm the environment and that it is useful for the public in Myanmar,” U Ba Myint said.
Critics have raised concerns that the project could burden Myanmar with unsustainable debts and provoke more armed conflict in the project areas as the railway will pass through armed conflict areas in Shan State.
“We have held public hearings to spread awareness that the project is needed for the benefit of this country. We already received a green light from Shan State that they are willing to contribute to the development of their state,” said U Win Khant, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
CREEG have covered the full cost of the study, including the assessment of environmental and social impacts of the proposed railway line.
“We will try make the final result for the construction by the end of this year,” said U Win Khant. “The Chinese Company only worked on the feasibility study. We will invite international tenders for the project,” he said.