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24 Nov, 2003

Asian Highway Pact Cleared, Set to Transform Asia’s Road Network

After years of arduous negotiations, representatives of 32 Asia-Pacific countries last week adopted an agreement that sets out the minimum terms, conditions and standards for joining, coordinating and developing the vast, 140,000-kilometre Asian Highway network.

Due to be signed at the 60th ministerial session of UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific in April 2004, the agreement marks a major step towards the creation of a massive land transport network designed to link up the region’s capital cities, tourism spots, industrial and agricultural centres, and sea and river-ports.

The Russian delegate to the meeting, whose country has about 16,800 kilometres of Asian Highway running through it, hailed the agreement as one of ESCAP’s “most efficient actions” and said it would go a long way towards helping build bridges between Europe and Asia.

The agreement essentially sets up a framework for common classification and design standards for various Highway routes, including signage. It also lays out the modalities for proposing new routes and mechanism for dispute settlement and withdrawal from the agreement.

The network essentially includes routes ranging from two-lane roads with design speeds of 30 kilometres per hour to access-controlled highways with speeds of 120 kmph, and banned to mopeds, animal-drawn carts, bicycles and pedestrians.

Once signed and ratified, countries will have to clearly mark all the highway routes with the appropriate signage.

Described as ESCAP’s long-running flagship programme, the Asian Highway aims to develop an effective network across Asia and connecting Asia with Europe and Western Asia. Since 1992, it has been part of the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) programme, which also includes the Trans-Asian Railway.

According to Mr. Barry Cable, Director of ESCAP’s Transport and Tourism Division, “The efficient establishment of such a network has to be founded on international cooperation, coordination and planning.

“While national planners ordinarily give highest priority to national networks, in particular, networks connecting a country’s largest cities, an effective international network can be of great benefit to each country it connects, for instance by increasing trade and tourism. In particular, landlocked countries have no access to seaports without international highways or railways through neighbouring countries.”

Mr. Cable noted that a number of issues had to be overcome before the agreement could be adopted.

One of these is alignment of roads, to avoid situations where a road connecting two countries, and developed by each country individually, does not meet at the same point on the border.

Another potential problem is that standards for road networks differ from one country to another. Different road signs and markings, varying road quality and different standards for roads and bridges will all present difficulties for traffic along international routes.

An important issue for technicians or investors is access to information about highway networks, Mr. Cable said. Many countries have national road databases, but face difficulties collecting and analysing data and information on road conditions, surface quality, traffic conditions, road accidents, maintenance records and many other parameters.

“More significantly, it is not easy for international transporters, technicians or investors to obtain information on international routes relying on information provided by individual countries, which may in some cases be lacking, difficult to find or presented in different ways,” he said.

The meeting also agreed to include Japan in the Asian Highway, with its first route being from Tokyo to Fukuoka.

Most recent activities under the Asian Highway programme have been funded by Japan, through the Japan-ESCAP Cooperation Fund. The Japan International Cooperation Agency has provided the services of an expert nearly continuously since the inception of the programme in 1959.

South Korea has also funded two recent projects under the programme, and funds for some country studies have come from the United Nations regular budget for technical cooperation.

Delegates to the ESCAP meeting were clearly both relieved and elated. The Indian delegate said it would set the stage for further negotiations between countries to facilitate travel by improving border-crossing formalities. It will also give an impetus to India’s road-development programme, of which about 10,000 kilometres is under a privatisation scheme.

The Korean delegate said the agreement has given “great momentum” to the ALTID project and would complement the railway line now being laid between North Korea and South Korea. The project began in 2000 and expected to be finalised in 2004.

The Mongolian delegate said the agreement will go a long way towards meeting needs of the landlocked countries, which also include Laos, Bhutan, Afghanistan and many of the Central Asian Republics.

The Nepalese delegate said ESCAP would now need to address other emerging issues like road safety. Nepal has one of the highest road casualty rates in the world.

Japanese highway expert Tetsuo Miyairi said it was also important to complete the multi-modality of the network by ensuring coordinated linkages with airports. He said air travel had been one of the missing links and it was important to address that, especially view of the increasing liberalisation of air traffic in the region.

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