Before December 2021, it was unimaginable to plan a day trip from the Laos capital of Vientiane to northern parts of the country, such as the UNESCO city of Luang Prabang. Even today, a minivan takes seven hours to cover the distance one way.Thanks to the Laos-China Railway (LCR), the journey takes just two hours. The Lao section of the LCR is a major cooperative project between the governments of Laos and China with a total length of 422.4km from the Lao capital of Vientiane to its border with China’s Yunnan province. The electrified single-track railway can travel up to 160km per hour. The entire project, costing $5.9 billion, has a total length of 1,035km terminating in Yunnan’s Kunming city.

Transportation impact 

According to Laos-China Railway Co Ltd (LCRC), the company overseeing the operations, financing, construction and operation of the Laos section of the LCR, the railway has significantly contributed to Laos' economic and social development, interconnectivity with neighbouring countries and the enhancement of its comprehensive national strength. “Over the past two years, the golden corridor effect of the LCR has become increasingly evident and it has emerged as a road of development, happiness and friendship for the Lao and Chinese people,” said Liu Hong, general manager of the LCRC, during an interview with a group of ASEAN journalists who toured the railway in late June. He said there is an average of 10 pairs of cross-border freight trains currently passing each day through the Boten-Mohan border between Laos and China, with transportation capacity continuing to increase. The railway provides both cargo freight and passenger services. For cargo, it transports fruits from neighbouring Thailand and goods from Laos, including items such as tapioca starch, rice, minerals and durians, to China. In return, it transports fertilisers and rubber products from China to other Asian countries. According to Liu, the Lao portion of the LCR transported over 4 million tonnes of cargo in 2023, a year-on-year increase of more than 83 per cent, with a daily average of 11,204 tonnes. Of this, 615,000 tonnes of cargo were sent from China to Laos and 3.474 million tonnes were sent from Laos to China. As of June 19, a total of 2.63 million tonnes of cargo had been transported this year, an increase of 32 per cent compared to the same period last year, with a daily average of 15,393 tonnes and a maximum daily dispatch of 22,217 tonnes. Regarding travellers, the Lao section of the railway transported nearly 2.6 million passengers in 2023, a year-on-year increase of nearly 86 per cent, with a daily average of 7,106 passengers. The international passenger train transported 111,000 passengers the same year. In 2024, as of June 19, a total of 1.69 million passengers had used the railway, an increase of 41.3 per cent from the same period last year, with a daily average of 9,864 passengers. A total of 56,000 passengers crossed the Laos-China border via the railway during the same period. Along the route, the LCRC stated that they have created an economic belt, which drives the construction of the China-Laos Economic Corridor and promotes Laos' graduation from the list of least developed countries (LDC). Several Lao ministries have introduced high-quality cooperative enterprises and key projects, such as logistics and trade, the planting of agricultural and sideline products and railway cross-border optical cables.

Job and skills for Lao officials and students

The railway has created job opportunities for local people, employing 800 Lao, with over 90 per cent of them assigned to specific positions. The proportion of Lao employees in the company is nearly 60 per cent. On a broader scale, the LCR has provided more than 3,600 jobs, according to Liu. He said the company comprehensively improves the professional skills of Lao employees, noting since June 2020, it has recruited and trained Lao locals in nine batches. A Lao chief conductor of the LCR, identified as Vongthong, told reporters that the railway made her dream come true. Vongthong said she has loved trains since she was young, and before the project’s launch she was recruited and received training in China. Sounnalath, a Lao student in his first year of a three-year programme at Kunming Railway Vocational and Technical College, is pursuing his dream to become a train driver for the LCR. “The most difficult part for me is the driving simulation because I am still new to the course. But this part of the training is interesting to me,” he said at his class in Kunming city.

Future connection to ASEAN

Anongdeth Phetkaysone, an official from the Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transport, told reporters that the project is important to Laos in many aspects. “Of course, it is crucial to us for socioeconomic development. For the past few years, we have seen the contribution of this project to our transport sectors, especially in the transportation of products, not only domestically but also internationally,” he said, adding that many other sectors have been positively impacted, especially tourism. He said currently, up to 80 per cent of the cargo exchanged between Laos and China transported along the railway is from Laos to China, noting the future goal is to connect China to other ASEAN countries via the railway. “So, we can see that this route benefits not just Laos but other ASEAN countries as well,” he said. With the LCR running smoothly for more than two years, the next project is to connect the line to Thailand, with testing of the connection set to take place next week. “With the trial operation of the Laos-Thailand Railway between Bangkok and Vientiane from July 13-14, and the future connection of the China-Laos-Thailand Railway with the Malaysian railway, economic and trade cooperation and people-to-people exchanges between ASEAN and China will be further promoted, driving the rapid economic development of regional countries,” Liu said.