After decades of regional conflict and poverty the first international rail link between land-locked Laos and Thailand has opened across the Mekong River.

Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn opened the rail link, which will see two passenger trains will run the 30-minute return trip each day, serving about 500 people daily.

The bridge is seen as a key part of the region’s transport development, extending road links from Singapore to China’s port city of Shanghai.

A Laos foreign affairs spokesman said the railway was important for his country as it would greatly reduce export costs, as transport by lorry was only previously available.

“The aim is to unlock a country with no previous access to the sea,” the spokesperson said.

The new link adds a vital 3.5km (2.1 miles) to regional plans to link Asia by rail, ferrying goods and passengers.

The track over the Friendship Bridge took 20 months to complete and was funded by Thailand at a cost of about THB197m ($5.5m; £3.8m).

The UN-backed Trans-Asian Railway now has nearly 74,700km of working track serving 29 countries, and estimates for completion range from ten to 15 years.

The new network is part of a plan conceived in the 1960s to connect Asia with a continuous railway, stretching west to Turkey and Russia, and north and east to China, Vietnam and South Korea.

By Daniel Garrun.