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Plans for railways to Herat
There have been numerous plans for the construction of a railway to the city of Herat in western Afghanistan, but the only project which has progressed to actual construction is the current one for an extension of the Iranian railway network to reach Herat.
Previous plans mostly consisted of Russian imperial schemes for a railway line south from Mary in (what is now) Turkmenistan to Herat, and rival British imperial schemes for a line north from Quetta in (what is now) Pakistan.
These schemes were for strategic railways, with each empire keen to ensure that the other didn’t control Herat and thus seize the initiative in the “Great Game”. Had Russia started work on a railway from Mary to Herat, it is likely that Britain would have begun work on a line from Quetta to Kandahar in an effort to deter any Russian threat to India.
However none of these schemes came to fruition. The railway from Quetta never penetrated beyond Chaman, while Russia’s tracks stopped at Serhetabat1, only being extended over the Afghan border to the current terminus at Towraghondi in the 1980s.
The Great Game era is covered elsewhere on this website, but the current Iranian scheme perhaps has as much regional – and potentially global – strategic significance as the past proposals.
Proposed Iranian connections
A railway from Tehran to Shahrud opened in May 1941, and a continuation from Shahrud to the major pilgrimage city of Mashhad followed in April 1957.2
In early 1972 the Iranian national railway submitted a proposal to the government for an extension of this line onwards across the border to Herat.3 Running 390 km south east from Mashhad, the line would have taken a more direct route than the one which is currently under construction.4
A year later a Gorgan to Mashhad extension of the Trans-Iranian railway line was also being proposed, to provide a second line between Tehran and Mashhad. Extensions to the Soviet and Afghan frontiers were still planned.5 The line to the Soviet border at Sarakhs was the only one to be built.
In 1975 Indian railway consultants undertook surveys and a feasibility study for a 1 400 km national rail network in Afghanistan. The backbone of this network would have been a line running from Mashhad in Iran to Herat and Kandahar and then on to Chaman, proving access to the sea through Pakistan. Other lines would have run from Herat to Serhetabat for onward connections with the USSR, and from Kandahar to Kabul.6 The work was funded using a US$20m loan from Iran, at a timew when the Afghan government of President Mohammad Daoud Khan was trying to reduce Soviet influence on the country.
In 1976 the Afghan government approved plans drawn up French consultancy Sofrerail7 for a 1 815 km standard gauge rail network which was to be constructed during the seventh Afghan national plan (1976-80).8 These plans were similar to the previous year’s proposals from the Indian consultants.
In addition to the Mashhad – Islam Qala – Herat line the Sofrerail plans included a second line to Iran via Tarakun in the southwest of Afghanistan. This would leave the backbone line at Lashkar Gah and run southwest to join Iran’s planned Kerman – Zahedan line (which eventually opened in 2009) and thus provide access from Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Little progress was made with these projects owing to subsequent political upheavals in Afghanistan, and the 1979 Revolution in Iran prevented western consultants from working in Iran. Despite these setbacks for the projects, in 1983 the UK magazine Modern Railways reported that the by-now Soviet-backed Afghan regime was “pushing ahead with plans” for a railway network linking Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, with a branch from Kandahar to Chaman and a line from Herat to Islam Qala.9
In March 1984 Modern Railways reported the signing of a Soviet-Afghan government agreement for railway construction. This report said “The Tashkent-Bukhara line of Soviet Railways (SZD) has already been extended across the frontier to Herat [sic], this section being completed in May 1982.”10 However this would appear to be talking about Hayratan in northern Afghanistan, to where a railway over the Friendship Bridge opened in the early 1980s and from where an extension to Kabul was planned.
The 1990 edition of the Times Atlas of the World shows a line to the Afghan border which was never built. This branches from the Masshad – Sarakhs line near Na’tu, and runs south to Tayyebad from where it turns east to stop on the Iranian side of the border at Dogharoun. 11
Nothing came of any of these plans, and much of Afghanistan’s subsequent history was not conducive to railway construction. Then in June 2002 the Iranian Transport Ministry and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Works signed a memorandum of understanding to go ahead with construction of a railway from Khaf to Herat province.
Next page: Soviet railway extensions in Afghanistan
- Serhetabat is now in Turkmenistan, and was formerly called Kushka in Russian and Gusgy in Turkmen. ↩
- Middle East Railways, Hugh Hughes, Continental Railway Circle, 1981, pp104-5 ↩
- Afghanistan link proposed by Iranian Railways, Railway Gazette International, March 1972 p85 ↩
- Plans for Trans-Asia Rail Link Gain, New York Times, 1969-11-30 “Afghanistan would gain access to the Indian Ocean by the construction of 244 miles of rail from Herat to Meshad in Iran, and 70 miles from Kandahar to …” Fragment accessed via Google News Archive on 2009-11-09 ↩
- In brief, Railway Gazette International, February 1973 p46 ↩
- India surveys 1,400 km network in Afghanistan, Railway Gazette International, May 1975, p167, accessible at University of York ↩
- Société d’Etudes et de Réalisations Ferroviaires, the overseas consulting arm of French state railway SNCF. Sofrerail eventually formed part of Systra. Systra Group ↩
- Afghan network of 1,815 km goes ahead, Railway Gazette International, June 1976, p204 accessible at University of York ↩
- Rail links with Pakistan and Iran, Modern Railways, April 1983, quoted at University of York ↩
- USSR-Afghanistan rail project, Modern Railways, March 1984, quoted at University of York ↩
- Times Atlas of the World, 8th edition, 1990, plate 32. This edition also shows a never-built Chaman – Spin Boldak line across the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. ↩