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SOCHI, Russia, June 3 (UPI) -- Europe and Asia can more easily develop long-term trade and cultural partnerships by integrating the two continents' rail systems, Russian officials say.
Rail transport representatives from 32 countries -- including chief executive officers of national railways, private railway carriers, equipment makers and government officials -- were working toward that goal in Sochi, Russia, at a major conference this week.
"We will seek solutions aimed at creating an efficient transportation and logistical system for both the 'broad' and 'narrow' gauge lines and eliminating barriers that hinder the movement of commodities and passenger transportation," Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin, one of the hosts of the conference, said Wednesday.
The main motivator behind the talks at the Sixth International Rail Business Forum is the prospect of connecting Chinese-made products with the EU market via overland rail routes through Russia, Yakunin said.
"Today we clearly understand that the growth potential in the railway sector can be unlocked through the development of railway transportation routes," he said. "(The) Chinese economy is expected to outpace the United States' (by) 2050.
"Our vision should be focused on the developments that will take place between 2030 and 2050, since rapid infrastructure development is a sine qua non for economic growth."
One of the big barriers to integrating the Asian and European rail systems are the differing widths of tracks in different countries. There are two standards: 1,520mm, or "broad" gauge, and 1,435mm, or "narrow" gauge, tracks.
Russia, the former Soviet states, the Baltic states, Mongolia and Finland use the broad-gauge tracks, covering an area of more than 93,000 miles, while North America, Europe, China and some other countries use the narrower standard.
A cooperation strategy for the "1,520 and 1,435 stretches" is the first order of business for the Sochi forum. One of the goals is to make the rail transport of containers from the Far East to Russia's western borders possible in only seven days.
Among the companies and industry groups sending representatives to the event are DB International, Siemens AG, the International Union of Railways and Belarusian Railways.
The Sochi conference was to also feature a discussion chaired Siemens AG on the prospects of establishing international consortiums to build and jointly manage high-speed rail lines and fostering investments in them.
Russia has shown new interest in international rail integration since reinstating its membership in the International Union of Railways in 2008. Since then, Yakunin said, "we are currently trying to bridge the gap in the practical areas."
The country has since embarked on an ambitious program of rail modernization. It has called for $450 billion in long-term investments by 2030. The money, Yakunin has said, will come partly from privatizations of government-held assets.
It envisions two phases, the Bucharest industry trade journal Railway Pro reported. The first stage, which lasts until 2015, will include the modernization of 8,600 miles of existing routes and the construction of both new high-speed passenger lines and freight lines, which are expected to spawn new industrial areas.
A second phase, the journal said, would be to build 10,000 miles of new railway routes by 2030.