Long-standing plans to connect China to mainland Southeast Asia by means of high-speed rail are expected to soon become a reality following the Laotian government's decision to cooperate with Beijing on the epic engineering project.

According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Laotian political leaders recently met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and indicated that they would soon become signatories to a formal agreement for the project, which they described as a “priority.”

The high-speed rail will begin in the Yunnan province capital of Kunming in China’s southwest, and extend through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia before concluding in the regional trade hub of Singapore. The system will serve to radically improve intra-regional transportation, with trains on the network running at cruising speeds in excess of 190 kilometres an hour.

The network will also eventually extend into all of the nations of mainland Southeast Asia, including Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam, and promises to bring huge economic and trade opportunities to the region by expediting the flow of both goods and passengers.

 Kunming-Singapore train route

Laos in particular will be transformed by the introduction of a high-speed rail network. The land-locked nation remains a economic laggard following decades of Communist party rule and continues to suffer from a severe lack of both industry and functioning infrastructure. At present, the country is host to less than three kilometres of operating rail lines.

Bringing the project to fruition will represent a massive engineering feat. The completion of the Laos section of the line alone, from Boten on the Chinese border to the national capital of Vientiane, will entail the construction of 76 tunnels, 154 bridges and 31 train stations.

China plans to send 20,000 of its own nationals to work on the Laotian section of the line, which it hopes to see it up and running by the end of the decade.

The construction of a rail line connecting southern China to the rest of Southeast Asia has long been the dream of political leaders in the region, with British and French colonists first proposing the idea at the outset of the 20th century.

While warfare, revolution and the end of colonialism put paid to such ambitions, hopes for the project were revived last decade in October 2006, when the Kunming-Singapore Railway was included in the Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement signed by 17 nations in Eastern and Central Asia.