Ground survey work began Sunday on the Myanmar – China high-speed railway, a project that will link two economic centres in Myanmar with Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in Southwestern China, as part of Beijing’s grand infrastructure plan for the region. Ministry of Transport and Communications permanent secretary U Win Khant said;

“A joint team is working on a study of the railway alignment,” 

In October, two state-owned companies China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (China Railway Group Ltd) (CREEG) and Myanmar Railways signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to conduct a feasibility study as a part of the China – Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is itself part of China’s ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

The Mandalay-Muse railway project will be 431 km (268 miles) long and pass through armed conflict areas in Shan State.

U Win Khant said, “There are some places [in Shan State] that are not accessible to the study due to security concerns.” 

“We are still negotiating with the State Minister and Home Affairs – Ministry officials on security issues in order to access those areas,” U Win Khant said.

According to the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the survey will work on the Naung Cho (Nawnghkio)-Lashio section of the railway from Jan. 6 to April 13 and the Lashio-Muse section from January 15 to April 2.

Muse, on Myanmar’s 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 in Yunnan province to Kyaukphyu in Rakhine, 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 km. However, the government of then-President U Thein Sein suspended the project following strong local objections. The agreement expired in 2014.

Under a new MOU, CREEG will cover the full cost of the study, which will assess the environmental and social impacts of the proposed railway line. While the agreement calls for a study period of two years, U Win Khant said the study is expected to be finished in six months to a year.

Currently, Mandalay is connected to Muse via Lashio by the National Highway. The trip takes more than eight hours. According to the ministry, electric trains will run at speeds of 160 kph, cutting the travel time to roughly three hours. The ministry expects to construct at least seven freight stations and five passenger stations along the route.

According to U Win Khant, the ministry will announce details on the number of bridges, tunnels and the exact locations of stations on the railway after the first stage of the survey is complete.

Despite warnings from critics that the project could burden Myanmar with unsustainable debts and provoke more armed conflict in the project areas, 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, Myanmar is implementing five priority transportation corridors. 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.