First China to Afghanistan freight train departs

What is described as the first train from China to Afghanistan1 left Nantong in eastern China’s Jiangsu province on 25 August 2016, carrying 84 containers.2

It is scheduled to take 15 days to complete the journey, running via the Alataw Pass, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Hairatan in northern Afghanistan.3

Two trains are scheduled to run each month, as part of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative to improve Asian transport connectivity.

The inaugural train was photographed being hauled by Class ND5 (General Electric Type C36-7) diesel-electric locomotive number 0157, which was decorated with a red pompom kind of thing on its nose and with a sign on the front saying in English:

Central Asia Trains
Nantong—Afghan – Hairatan

plus some Chinese writing, which I’m reliably informed says the same thing.

There was also a banner on the side of the locomotive saying “Congratulations on the Central Asial trains (Nantong – Afghanistan – Hairaton) launching“,4 and there were banners on some of the wagons.5

Interestingly, the containers are being carried in open wagons, rather than on flat wagons. The wagons themselves will presumably not be making the full journey, instead the containers will be shipped from China’s 1435 mm standard gauge wagons to the fomer USSR’s 1520 mm gauge at the Kazakh border.

References

  1. I have no particular reason to doubt this claim
  2. Cargo train services launched between Nantong and Afghanistan, Xinhua, 25 August 2016
  3. Cargo train leaves Nantong on first journey to Afghanistan, CCTV.com, 25 August 2016
  4. For what it’s worth, the spelling of Hairatan/Hairaton was not consistent between the front and side banners
  5. Central Asia freight train service starts, Xinhua, 25 August 2016

Tracks, drugs and rolling stock

An article at The Bug Pit, UN: NDN An Express Train For Afghan Drug Traffickers, draws attention to an October 2012 report from the UN Office on Drugs & Crime, Misuse of Licit Trade for Opiate Trafficking in Western and Central Asia: A Threat Assessment. This report contains information about rail transport in Central Asia, as well as lots of details of the movements of undesirable substances.

As Bug Pit author Joshua Kucera points out, “it stands to reason that making transportation easier would make illicit trafficking easier – especially in countries where border officials are notoriously corrupt.”

The UN report says:

Uzbek officials stationed at the [Hairatan] border are generally well trained and receive relatively high salaries. The risk of concealed drugs crossing the border undetected is therefore lower at the Hairatan BCP than it is in Naibabad.
(p65)

This issue has been raised at a couple of railway conferences I’ve been to in Turkey and the UAE, where it was suggested that providing decent jobs – particularly wages – for border officials in places like Central Asia can easily pay for itself in smoother regional trade, and also help to ensure that legitimate fees are charged and go where they should be going, rather than unofficial fees which disappear into black holes.

It was even suggested that dealing with these matters might offer better benefits for the cost than funding fancy new transport infrastructure.

The report also offers some information about trains:

The Hairatan [Border Control Point] primarily receives cargo arriving on the Termez-Hairatan railway from Uzbekistan. On average, 100-120 containers are sent to and from Hairatan BCP each day.26 Interview with Customs Officials at Dry Ports in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, March 2012. At the Hairatan BCP and Naibabad dry port, cargo is trans-shipped from trains onto trucks, which then travel along the assigned transit routes to Pakistan.
(p32)

and about boats:

The large river port at Termez ships approximately 1,000 tons of cargo daily to a location only 500 metres away from the Hairatan BCP in Afghanistan.

The road and railway link from Termez to Hairatan runs along the northern trade route and is part of
the Northern Distribution Network.137 The railway line was only completed in 2010. The railway line has the capacity to transport 4,000 tons of cargo per month and can cater for eight trains travelling in each direction per day. On average, 100-120 containers travel the route every day.138 US Department of State, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5380.htm Although the road leading from Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif has recently been improved, it is not capable of handling high levels of traffic. Therefore, cargo continues to be delivered to and from Afghanistan primarily along the railway route.
(p64)

The railway dates from 1982, and “4,000 tons of cargo per month” sounds rather low; perhaps that should be per day, meaning 500 tons on each of those eight trains – or 250 tonnes if both directions are included?

In 2007, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan signed a transport and transit agreement. […] Both countries also agreed to extend the Turkmen railroad network from Serkhetabad to Torghundi in the Afghan Herat province and to construct a trans-Afghan gas pipeline.
(p76)

The line is originally older than 2007, which was when Turkmenistan funded rebuilding and reopening it.

There are two main trade and transit trade routes leading from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan. The first is a direct road and railroad link from Torghundi in Afghanistan to Serkhetabad in Turkmenistan. On average, the rail services at Torghundi transport around 50 wagons per day, while Torghundi dry port trans-ships containers delivered by approximately 300-350 trucks per day. From Torghundi dry port, Afghan goods can be delivered via Turkmenistan to the Russian Federation or the Islamic Republic of Iran. From the Islamic Republic of Iran, they are shipped to countries in the Persian Gulf, or through Turkey to European markets.
(p77)

The report continues:

The second transit route is a railroad that runs from Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the Islamic Republic of Iran. It begins at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan and terminates at the Iranian Bandar Abbas seaport:

  • Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan) – Andkhoy – Chardzhou (Turkmenistan) – Serahs (Turkmenistan) – Mashhad (Islamic Republic of Iran) – Kerman – Bandar Abbas

(p77)

A Mazar-i-Sharif – Andkhoy – Turkmenstan railway is still only at the planning stage.

On a daily basis, approximately 50 vehicles cross the Imamnazar border in each direction180 Asian Development Bank, 2010, while a further 20-30 trucks cross at Serkhetabad.
(p78)

Northern Distribution Network corruption

This is a fascinating if somewhat depressing read: The New Silk Road and the Northern Distribution Network: A Golden Road to Central Asian Trade Reform?

The New Silk Road and the Northern Distribution Network is a constructive assessment of the conditions and challenges facing this effort that asks and answers the following questions:

  1. Is the Northern Distribution network incentivizing regional cooperation and border reforms?
  2. Is the Northern Distribution Network helping to fight corruption in Central Asia?
  3. Has the Northern Distribution Network made transhipment through Central Asia more efficient?
  4. Are ordinary Central Asian citizens benefitting from Northern Distribution Network trade?

I suspect you can guess the answers… you know what they say about the answer to a headline phrased as a question always being “no”?

The New Silk Road: Where Will It Lead is an interview with the author, Graham Lee. The report itself has lots of numbers for freight transport volumes and costs, which might be of interest to some readers.

In summary, the money being spend on the Northern Distribution Network is all disappearing into a pit of corruption, with lots of people on the take.

The report suggests that the various state railways are doing nicely out of the NDN traffic. I guess that if the freight needs to be moved, railways are more efficient in technical terms. But where is all the money they are getting going – funding strategic infrastructure investments and shiny new trains, disappearing off into general government funds, or into someone’s back pocket?

Silk Road by rail

The Silk Road by train section section of the Caravanistan travel website has some practical information about passenger services on Central Asian railways, (including a page on Afghanistan which doesn’t (yet…) have any passenger trains).

The beds are comfortable, your fellow passengers are sociable and the samovar at the end of the wagon keeps the hot water flowing so you can refill your cup of tea endlessly

Or you could buy a yak

NATO transit traffic

From Russian Transport Daily Report, 1 February 2010:

NATO Cargo Transit through Russia May Start within Days

Railway transit of non-lethal NATO freight through Russia and Central Asia to NATO forces in Afghanistan may start within days. This would seriously supplement transportation through the main transit route, which passes through Pakistan. Pakistan will most likely remain the main transit route for the foreseeable future. Cargo to be transported through Russia and Kazakhstan will not include weapons or ammunition. A transit deal with Russia signed in 2008 needed approval from Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries to come into force.
Source: Interfax News Agency

NATO to Afghanistan through Kazakhstan

Following on from the recent Russian agreement to let Germany ship military equipment to Afghanistan by rail, other countries are reported to be getting in on the act.

Kazakhstan: US continues to probe rail route via central Asia to Afghanistan

American military officials are continuing to press for alternative transport routes to Afghanistan, with senior commanders exploring the feasibility of a rail route through the Caucasus and Central Asia.

According to a press release issued by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense [here], Deputy Defense Minister Bulat Sembinov met with the commander of the US Transportation Command, Duncan McNabb, to look into “opportunities for organizing transit and providing material and technical assistance to the process of reconstruction and backing forces in Afghanistan.” Earlier in November, McNabb met with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.

Separately, Kazakhstan’s transport minister, Serik Akhmetov, met Richard Hoagland, the US envoy in Astana, to discuss various transit ideas involving Afghanistan. The high level meetings in Astana follow on Russian permission to Germany to use the country’s extensive railway network to transit military goods bound for Afghanistan. It is the first time Russia has permitted a NATO ally to transit military supplies via an overland route.

A spokeswoman for NATO said the alliance was now actively pursuing agreements with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to gain access to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to expand trade and economic opportunities through railway transport. Zhao Xiaoyu, ADB Vice-President, said the agreement “will be taking a major step toward realizing the dream of expanded trade and economic opportunities for larger Central Asia.”

Source: Eurasianet, posted 27 November 2008
© Open Society Institute.

The Kazak Ministry of Defense’s website says:

Developing military cooperation

Today deputy minister of defense of the Republic of Kazakhstan general–lieutenant Bulat Sembinov met commander of Transport Command Staff of the USA (TRANSCOM USA) general Dunkan McNab in the defense office. During the meeting there were discussed perspectives of bilateral cooperation possibilities of transit organization, rendering material and technical assistance to the process of reconstruction and support of forces and means in Afghanistan in particularly.

USA TRANSCOM – is the one detachment which manages all the aviation, land and sea transport of the Ministry of defense of the USA. And Kazakhstan is the one state in the region which has 5 year cooperation Plan with the USA between defense offices which includes such important directions of cooperation as development f peacekeeping potential of the Armed Forces RK, improvement of Kazakhstan military education system and mutual participation in exercises.

[more]
Source: Ministry of Defense, Kazakhstan, 21 November 2008