Iran to Herat

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Plans for railways to Herat

The citadel in 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

However nothing came of any of these plans, and much of Afghanistan’s subsequent history has not been conducive to railway construction.

The current project

In May 200512 Railways of the Islamic Republic of Iran (RAI) opened an 800 km north-south line running from Kashmar, 114 km west of Mashhad on the Tehran – Mashhad line, through remote mountains and desert to Bafgh.13

Mine near Sangan, Iran

The project includes a 148 km branch which leaves the Mashhad – Bafgh line at Torbat-e Heydariyeh (not to be confused with the nearby Torbat-e Jam) and runs via Sangan, Salami and Khaf to iron ore mines around 18 km from (a second) Sangan in Khorasan province.14 There are intermediate loops or yards at seven locations, including the four main stations at Rashtkhar, Chamanabad, Salami and Salar.

Construction of the Torbat-e Heydariyeh to Sangan “Eastern Civilization Railroad” began in 2002 and can be seen underway on the satellite photos on Google Maps.15 It opened on 1 March 2007.16

The railway to Afghanistan will be an extension of this line.

Khaf to Herat railway


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The Iranian government has funded a number of developments in the Herat province of western Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime, including the USD68m construction of a 123 km surfaced road to Herat from the border at Dogharoun1718 which was inaugurated on 27 January 2007.19

On 28 February 2002 Iranian Member of Parliament for Khaf & Rashtkhar and Chairman of the Iranian-Afghan friendship group Gholam-Heydar Ebrahimbay-Salami announced that USD25m was allocated in the 2002 budget bill for the construction of a railway from Torbat-e-Heidarieh to Herat.20 Finance would also come from international aid and the Iranian Commission for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan. The plan would be based on the 1975 preliminary studies by Sofrerail, and traffic would include iron ore.21.

The project got underway in June 2002 when the Iranian Transport Ministry and what Railway Gazette International refers to as Afghanistan’s “Ministry of Public Utility” signed a memorandum of understanding. The total length of the line is around 191 km, and construction has been split into four lots, two in each country.22

During a subsequent visit to Tehran by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on 26-29 May 2006 a further agreement was signed.23

In June 2006 Afghan officials visited Iran, and Es’haq Naderi, economic advisor to President Karzai, agreed plans for the construction of the railway with RAI Director-General Mohammad Saeednejad. Iran committed to meeting 60% of the project costs from funds it had previously allocated to Afghan reconstruction programmes. Preliminary studies had already been completed for a 189 km route (86.8 km in Iran), and tendering was expected soon afterwards.24

Work officially began in Iran on 29 July 2006.25 The railway is an extension of the existing Khaf line, and thus takes a different route to the previous proposals which focused on a more direct route running southeast from Mashhad to Islam Qala.

In a written answer in the British House of Commons on 21 November 2007, Minister for International Development Shahid Malik responded to a question on Afghan railways. “In early 2006 Afghanistan began work on a railway project connecting Hirat [Herat] city to the Iranian border at Sangan. 60 per cent. of the project is funded by the Iranian Government.” Malik said discussion was underway on constructing lengthier railways in Afghanistan, but he cautioned “there needs to be a very careful economic cost-benefit analysis of any major railway investments to ascertain whether this is the best use of investment resources as compared with other priority investments.”26

The single-track railway will form an extension of the Iranian network, and is thus being built to 1435 mm standard gauge. The route starts at Khaf, the penultimate loop of the line to Sangan. The route then heads slightly south and then east through a rugged and arid landscape. The border between Iran and Afghanistan is reached after 77 km – presumably the crossing will be at Dogharoun, where the existing customs and security facilities for road traffic are situated. The line then runs 114 km through Afghanistan’s Herat province. The first town in the Afghan side of the border is Islam Qala. There will be 10 intermediate stations, with Ghoryan being the largest town served on the Afghan side, about halfway between the border and the city of Herat.27

The line is designed for passenger trains to run at 160 km/h, and studies have predicted 321 000 passengers a year. Freight will be the principal source of revenue, with annual traffic forecast to reach 6·8 million tonnes including oil products, iron and steel as well as industrial goods.28

Construction

At least part of the construction work is being undertaken by Abad Rahan Pars, which has a contract worth USD40m29 awarded by Iran’s Ministry of Road & Transportation in January 2007 and supervised by Iran Eston (who I can’t find mentioned elsewhere).30

The work was slowed by “security challenges”.31 In November 2007 an Iranian engineer working on the railway was kidnapped by armed men while in the Ghoryan district. He was subsequently released, and the head of Herat Security Command’s press office, Nour-Khan Nikzad, “did not rule out the possibility of financial motives behind the abduction.”32

Two police officers and two Taliban militants were killed in an armed clash at a checkpoint in a railway area in the Ghoryan district on 1 July 2009.33

In May 2008, Hamid Behbahani, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Roads & Transportation said 60% of the work in Iran and 40% in Afghanistan had been completed.34. In October of that year Iran’s Ministry of Public Affairs said the line was being built by the government of Iran, was still 60% complete, and was expected to be completed by the end of the year. “The ministry said it planned to build more railway lines to meet the demand for transportation links between Afghanistan and its neighbours, who use Afghanistan as a transit route for goods travelling to other parts of the region.”

Rail was said to be five times cheaper than transporting goods by road, but construction of 1 km of railway in Afghanistan “costs about $2 million” according to the Ministry, “and a planned railway between Herat and Tajikistan will cost about $4 billion”.35 These numbers don’t seem to add up, though there may be extra costs for specific major works such as bridges, plus freight terminals and the like.

The railway was not in fact completed in 2008. In January 2009 Quqnoss was still reporting that construction was underway, in an an article which talks about the line being the first stage of a $2bn 1200 km route between central Asia and Iran which will be completed throughout in five years – which would be 2014.36

In March 2009 the railway “to the Maslakh in Herat” was reported as 97% “accomplished” and it was to be “used as soon as possible”. Maslakh is the site of a camp for internally-displaced persons, around 20 km west of Herat. “The construction work has been accomplished at least 97 percent in Zanga Saba village of Ghoryan district. 200 bridges and ditches have been built.”37

As of November 2009, the satellite images in Google Maps show no sign of earthworks for this line. However Google’s image could be quite old – the Sangan line opened in 2007 is visible as only partly built. The road from the Iranian border to Herat can clearly be seen, and the railway will presumably follow a roughly similar route.

In November 2009 a correspondent in Herat said the line was not finished yet.38

Next page: Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif railway

References

  1. Serhetabat is now in Turkmenistan, and was formerly called Kushka in Russian and Gusgy in Turkmen.
  2. Middle East Railways, Hugh Hughes, Continental Railway Circle, 1981, pp104-5
  3. Afghanistan link proposed by Iranian Railways, Railway Gazette International, March 1972 p85
  4. 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
  5. In brief, Railway Gazette International, February 1973 p46
  6. India surveys 1,400 km network in Afghanistan, Railway Gazette International, May 1975, p167, accessible at University of York
  7. Société d’Etudes et de Réalisations Ferroviaires, the overseas consulting arm of French state railway SNCF. Sofrerail eventually formed part of Systra. Systra Group
  8. Afghan network of 1,815 km goes ahead, Railway Gazette International, June 1976, p204 accessible at University of York
  9. Rail links with Pakistan and Iran, Modern Railways, April 1983, quoted at University of York
  10. USSR-Afghanistan rail project, Modern Railways, March 1984, quoted at University of York
  11. 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.
  12. ‘Friendship Corridor’ opens up trade route from Central Asia to the Gulf Railway Gazette International, June 2005
  13. Iron and coal will dominate traffic flows Railway Gazette International
  14. National Geoscience Database Of Iran “Sangan iron ore factory and mine situated around of 18 km of northeast of Sangan city and near by Khaf Township. Getting the access to the mine and the factory is possible by 18 km longed asphalted line. Sangan city situated at 308 km of Mashhad, it has two access lines: Mashhad-Taybad by Torbat-e-Jam in midway and Mashhad-Khaf by Torbat-e-Heydarieh in midway. According to geographical situation, Sangan iron ore situated at 60° 24′ 40.6″ longitude and 34° 27′ 38.5″ latitude.”
  15. Google Maps, date of images unknown, accessed November 2009
  16. 3 IRINN Reports on New Railroad to Afghanistan, quoted at the Satellite News (Iran) website, 2007-03-01
  17. Iran’s Spending Spree in Afghanistan Jason Motlagh, Time, 2009-05-20
  18. Iran Strives to Free Abducted Nationals, Fars News Agency, 2008-08-24
  19. Khatami, Karzai inaugurate Dogharoun-Herat road, Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 27 January 2005.
  20. Allocation of $25m for Afghan rail link, Nimrooz, 2002-02-08
  21. The Iran-Afghanistan Railway will be constructed, Raja Trains, 2002-03-10
  22. Opening up Afghan trade route to Iran, Murray Hughes, Railway Gazette International, January 2008
  23. Afghanistan Signs Bilateral Agreements Embassy of Afghanistan, Volume 32, June 2006
  24. Iranian, Afghan officials discuss Sangan-Herat railroad project, ?Tehran Times 2006-06-19 quoted at Iran’s Ministry of Roads & Transport.
  25. Opening up Afghan trade route to Iran, Murray Hughes, Railway Gazette International, January 2008
  26. Written Answers for 21 November 2007, Hansard. “Mr. Ellwood: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what railway construction projects are (a) planned and (b) under way in Afghanistan.”
  27. Opening up Afghan trade route to Iran, Murray Hughes, Railway Gazette International, January 2008
  28. Opening up Afghan trade route to Iran, Murray Hughes, Railway Gazette International, January 2008
  29. The International Projects of Iranian Companies, Information Center of International Contractors of Iran
  30. Abad Rahan Pars
  31. Herat Khaf railway is to accomplish,
    Qasem Abdullahi (Trans: Jawid Ashraqzada), Herat Press Club 2009-03-15
  32. Abducted Iranian freed in Afghanistan Press TV 2007-12-03
  33. The conflict leaves five casualties in Ghoryan district, Shoaib Tanha (Trans: Jawid Ashraqzada), Herat Press Club 2009-07-02
  34. Railroad to Link Pakistan to Europe via Iran Fars News Agency, 2008-05-14
  35. Railway to Iran nears end of the tracks, Zabiullah Jhanmal, Quqnoos, 2008-10-19
  36. 1200 km Long Railway will be Completed in the Next Five Years, Ququnoos, 2009-01-19
  37. Herat Khaf railway is to accomplish, Qasem Abdullahi (Trans: Jawid Ashraqzada), Herat Press Club 2009-03-15
  38. Personal correspondence by e-mail with road haulage company, November 2009

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