Halfway through the fundamental transit policy issues of the Vienna Programme of Action, is the glass half full or half empty?

5 Mar 2019

The Midterm Review of the Vienna Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries (VPoA) for the Euro-Asian region held in Bangkok recently provided an opportunity to reflect on progress made and, more importantly, what remains to be done to address the unique challenges facing landlocked developing countries (LLDCs) to achieve the 2030 Agenda

A secure, reliable and efficient transit transport system remains critical to LLDCs’ integration into the regional and global economy. Toward that end, reviewing the priority one on the fundamental transit policy issues an ESCAP study shows that during 2014-2018, there were significant new ratifications to international conventions related to transit transport facilitation by LLDCs and transit countries.

For example, seven LLDCs and 11 transit countries have acceded to the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade Facilitation (TFA). The ESCAP Intergovernmental Agreement on Dry Ports has been acceded by five LLDCs and six transit countries, making it the second-most widely accepted agreement in the region.

In addition, new multilateral agreements involving LLDCs have been finalized, such as the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement, the Chabahar Agreement among India, Islamic Republic of Iran and Afghanistan and the Intergovernmental Agreement on International Road Transport among China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation.

Although accession to an international convention or agreement is a necessary pre-requisite, it is not sufficient for transit transport facilitation. Effective implementation of the legal instruments is key to bringing desired benefits. For example, Article 11 of the TFA has 17 provisions that covers issues related to transit. Its expedited implementation could boost transit transport facilitation for LLDCs.

Similarly, efficient operationalization of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Dry Ports could make enormous differences in transport connectivity in the LLDCs. The optimal location of the dry ports could support the bundling of freight cargo to be transported by rail, reducing transport costs for LLDCs, particularly over long distances.

However, when it comes to the implementation of the transport agreements, the experience in the ESCAP region is mixed. Many global and subregional agreements have not been fully actualized for multiple reasons. One of them is the absence of appropriate operational tools and capacities with border agencies.

Therefore, going forward, LLDCs and transit countries need to exert efforts to make agreements and related international conventions operational. In this regard, focus on three areas would be desirable.

First, with the commercialization of new technologies, electronic vehicle tracking systems are increasingly used in transit transport facilitation. Such systems integrate electronic seals, satellite positioning systems and mobile technologies.

Aware of the potential of such technologies in facilitating transit, ESCAP developed a secure cross-border transport model that demonstrated use of these innovations to support cross-border and transit transport. Thereon, it has been undertaking pilots in various countries to validate techno-economic feasibility of these technologies in transit transport facilitation.

Second, with the advent of rapid digitization, many countries are exploring paperless transit transport systems. For example, pilots are underway in Southeast Asia for implementation of the ASEAN Customs Transit System (ACTS), an automated transit system.

ESCAP has also developed a guide on paperless transit systems and a guide on establishing an automated customs transit transport system to enhance the understanding of government officials on the design and operations of such systems.

Emphasis on electronic tracking and paperless transit transport would help implement many provisions of the Vienna Programme of Action that focus on the electronic exchange of data and information to facilitate transit transport.

Finally, and most importantly for LLDCs, international railway transport should be strengthened. The freight trains from China to Europe have increased exponentially since the beginning of this decade, reaching around 4,000 this year and is expected to rise further.

Apart from the northern route, the Central Asian route with many LLDCs is increasingly becoming important for railway transport. Reduced delays at the railway border crossing would enhance the competitive advantage of railways and would benefit LLDCs enormously.

To increase stakeholders’ understanding of improving the efficiency of railway transit, ESCAP recently developed studies on border crossing practices in international railway transport, enhancing interoperability for facilitation of international railway transport and electronic information exchange systems in railway freight transport.

As the Executive Secretary of ESCAP Ms. Armida Alisjahbana said in her opening remarks at the meeting, ESCAP is supporting electronic information exchange between railways operators and the harmonization of customs transit formalities to make the transport of freight by rail more cost-effective. These initiatives are expected to further strengthen international railway transport benefiting LLDCs.

The consensus at the meeting that reviewed the VPoA was that the glass is half full. Whether the glass is half full or half empty – given the challenging and uncertain global economic environment - LLDCs, transit countries and their development partners would need to make concerted efforts to enable a secure, reliable and efficient transit transport system during the second half of implementation to convincingly meet the objectives of the VPoA.