Serhetabat – Torghundi railway (re)inauguration

Two ceremonies marking stages of work on the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline were held on 23 February 2018, one in Turkmenistan to mark completion of the Turkmen section of the pipeline, and the second in Afghanistan’s Herat province to mark the start work on the Afghan section.1

The events included a first train on the recently modernised railway between Serhetabat in Turkmenistan and the freight terminal just across the border at Torghundi in Afghanistan.2

Guests included the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov; President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani; Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi; and India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, Mobashar Jawed Akbar.

Goods expects to use the railway include oil products, food, industrial goods and construction materials.

Although described in some reports as “new” railway, the line dates from the Soviet area; it possibly opened in the in the mid to late 1950s, although I have been unable to confirm this. It has now been modernised by Turkmenistan’s national railway company at Turkmenistan’s expense as part of “comprehensive help and support to the people of Afghanistan”, following the 7th Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan that took place in Ashgabat in mid-November 2017.3

The Afghan terminal is in Herat province, but is not in Herat city, which sometimes leads to confusion in news reports. There is also no consistency at all in the spelling of its name: Torghundi, Turghondi, Torghondi, Towraghondi, Turghundi, Torag Hundi, Turgundy, Tuurgundy…

References

  1. Construction of Afghan section of TAPI begins, 1TVNews.af, 23 February 2018
  2. Train Service Opens on New Turkmen–Afghan Railway: Serhetabat–Torghundi, State news agency of Turkmenistan – Turkmenistan today, 23 February 2018
  3. Train Service Opens on New Turkmen–Afghan Railway: Serhetabat–Torghundi, State news agency of Turkmenistan – Turkmenistan today, 23 February 2018

Towraghondi railway photos

Mirwais Nab, Ambassador of Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, tweets two photos of railway modernisation works at Towraghondi on the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border.

(As an aside, a priority for the project should be an agreement to settle on one romanised spelling of the place’s name!)

Turkmenistan modernises Towraghondi rail line

The train comprosed the loco and 42 vehicles, including a coach carrying construction staff, track machines, cranes and other equipment and materials on flat wagons

Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visted Serhetabat in late November to launch the “construction of new railway” from the Turkmen border to Towraghondi in Afghanistan, reported Turkmenistan’s official news agency on 29 November 2017.1

A “ceremony of launching Serhetabat – Turgundy railway” is scheduled for the second half of February 2018, with Afghanistan’s President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani planning to attend.2

There already is a railway from Turkmenistan to Towraghondi, so this project might be an upgrade rather than a new line.

The President arrived by helicopter on the morning of the construction launch event, and made a speech highlighting the importance of developing transport links.

Important role is given to the involvement of entire potential of the railway sphere in the development of all branches of national economy and multimodal system of Turkmenistan. Therefore, the greatest attention is paid to the expansion and modernization of its infrastructure.

As an example, the Head of the State gave the railway Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan – Iran, Kerky (formerly Atamyrat) – Ymamnazar – Akina. These and other routes as well those that were planned to be built open new opportunities for fruitful relations between the countries of the region and for consolidation of their economic power.

We render comprehensive support and assistance to fraternal Afghan people and will continue putting all efforts that enhance the revival of the neighbouring state, the Head of the State said, having highlighted that recently, Turkmenistan hosted the VII Regional Economic Cooperation Conference of Afghanistan where important agreements of regional importance were reached.

Having highlighted the decision on increase of the volumes of energy supplied from Turkmenistan to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Head of the State directed Turkmen railway constructors, who commenced the construction of the roads to Turgundy by the request of Afghanistan.

Source: President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov launches the construction of railway Serhetabat – Turgundy, State News Agency of Turkmenistan – Turkmenistan Today, 29 November 2017

The President then watched a train leave Serhetabat for Towraghondi. The locomotive reportedly hauled 42 vehicles, including a coach carrying railway construction staff, track machines, cranes and other equipment and materials on flat wagons “loaded with all necessary for the construction of new interstate railway line.”

Turkmen staff are to build the railway and develop infrastructure to increase throughput at Towraghondi, enabling Afghanistan to import and export goods more efficiently and providing better links with transport corridors running east-west and north-south in Central Asia.

After watching the train depart, the President held a meeting with railway personnel who would work on the project. The railwaymen “expressed sincere gratitude to the head of state for tireless work for the happiness of the Turkmen people, for the policy of progressive reforms and reforms, for positive initiatives and initiatives that earned independent authority and recognition of the world community for the creation of all necessary conditions for quality work.”3

The President then flew to Mary airport by helicopter, before returning to Ashgabat.

References

  1. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov launches the construction of railway Serhetabat – Turgundy, The state news agency of Turkmenistan – Turkmenistan today, 29 November 2017
  2. Mohammed Ashraf Ghani to take part in the launch of construction of Afghan part of TAPI gas line, State News Agency of Turkmenistan, 23 December 2017
  3. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov launched the construction of the railway line Serhetabat-Turgundi, TDH/State Migration Service of Turkmenistan, 30 November 2017

Turkmenistan – Afghanistan rail links to be upgraded

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan made an official visit to Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in Ashgabat on 3 July 2017.

Due to the special geo-economics & geopolitics situation of both countries, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan are committed to pay special attention to set up land transportation and railway routes.

Both presidents agreed on expanding cooperation in railroad systems and taking certain measures in this regard. These measures include reconstruction and repairing of the Serhedabad– Turghandi railroad and also expanding Aqina railroad.

[…]

Taking into account the transit and transportation potentials of the both countries, The presidents emphasized on Afghanistan-Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey trade and transit corridor and Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Turkmenistan railway.
[…]

At the end of the meeting, the relevant authorities signed the following bilateral cooperation agreements in presence of the two countries’ Presidents:
[…]

  • Regulations on Organization of railway communication through the Turkmen-Afghan State border between stations Akina- Imamnazar;
  • Agreement between the Governments of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan And the Government of Turkmenistan on International Railway checkpoint at the Turkmen-Afghan State Border;

Source: Joint Statement by the Presidents of I.R. Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, 3 July 2017

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Turkmenistan:

CIA information on the Torghundi freight terminal

Turkmen Railways locomotive at Towraghondi

In an attempt to pin down more precisely the opening date of the railway from Serhetabat in Turkmenistan to Towraghandi in Afghanistan, I had a look at some CIA documents which are now publicly available.1

Presumably the CIA would have kept a close eye on transport links to the Soviet border.

My suspicion is that the railway was extended from Kushka into Afghanistan circa 1960-1964 as part of the Soviet-backed Kuskha – Herat – Khandahar road improvement project, which was agreed by the USSR and Afghanistan on 28 May 1959.2

A July 1964 US photographic interpretation report describes Soviet military facilities at Kushka (now known as Serhetabat),3 with photos and a map of the “supply depot and rail-to-road transfer point” located “6 km southwest of Kushka at the terminus of the Mary-Kushka branch rail line, approximately 3 km from the Afghanistan border”.

1964 Central Intelligence Agency map of rail facilities at Kushka
(Map: Central Intelligence Agency, 1964)

Although the site is shown in the report as being located on the Soviet side of the Afghan border, comparing the photos, map and the latitude and longitude shows that the rail facility which is being described is almost certainly the same thing as the current Towraghondi (to pick one of many spellings!) freight terminal, which is inside Afghanistan.

1964 Central Intelligence Agency map of rail facilities at Kushka
(Map: Central Intelligence Agency, 1964)

So it looks like the railway did exist by 1964, but we now have a question as to why the 1964 CIA document put the Soviet-Afghan border further south and west of the current Turkmenistan-Afghan border. As far as I know, the border in the area has not moved since being fixed in the late 19th century, and Soviet maps such as this one from 1985 show the current border with the railway extending into Afghanistan:

Soviet map showing the railway from Kushka to Towraghondi

References

  1. Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room, CIA
  2. Central Intelligence Bulletin, 29 January 1969, CIA, USA
  3. KUSHKA MILITARY AREAS KUSHKA, USSR TURKESTAN MD. Document Number (FOIA) /ESDN (CREST): CIA-RDP78B04560A002400010012-9. NATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHIC INTERPRETATION CENTER, USA

Herat to Torghundi railway study comissioned

On 4 April 2016 Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Works signed a contract for Canarail to undertake a technical feasibility study for a railway from Herat to Torghundi

On 4 April 2016 Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Works signed a contract for Canadian consultancy Canarail to undertake a technical feasibility study for a proposed railway which would run from Herat to the Turkmenistan Railways railhead and freight yard at Torghundi.1 The study is expected to take six months to complete, with the Asian Development Bank covering the US$$1,603,500 cost.2

Contract between MoPW and Canarail International Company for economic and technical studies of Herat – Torghondi project has been signed.

H.E. Eng. Mahmoud Baligh, Minister of Public Works said “this railway project involves five countries as of China, Kazakhstan [sic; the Persian-language version of the announcement appears to say Kyrgyzstan, which would make more sense], Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan, which connect Asia to Europe through Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Although Afghanistan is a mountainous country & developing road network is very challenging, but to become a part of transit countries which is our historic and old vision so we have to develop the railway network to reach major economic powers, this issue for increasing domestic revenues and enhance economic growth plays a major role”.

Mentioned project takes 200 km length and will last 6 months to construct and cost $ 1.6 Million USD which is funded by Asian Development Bank.

Source: Contract of Technical and Economic studies of (Herat – Torghondi railway) has been signed, Ministry of Public Works, 5 April 2016

This seems to be referring to the Five Nations railway plan for a corridor from China to Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran. It is not clear what the 200 km refers to; Herat to the border is about 80 km in a straight line. US$1.6m might fund the technical study, but wouldn’t cover much construction work.

The gauge is not specified. Torghondi is the gateway to the 1520 mm network in the former USSR, however a 1435 mm gauge line is under construction from Iran to Herat.

In December 2013 the Ministry of Public Works had appointed Canarail and Appleton Consulting to undertake a 12-month study of the feasibility of extending the Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif railway around 225 km west to Sheberghan, Andkhoy and Aqina, and around 50 km northeast to the border with Tajikistan.

Historical note

During the 19th Century Great Game era there was concern in Britain that Russia might one day build a rail link from the Trans-Caspian Railway to Herat, which it was feared would be a useful base for any Russian advance on India. British strategists – serious and armchair – debated the merits of building a railway to Kandahar as a counter-move. It was reported that the Russians had a stockpile of railway materials at Kushka (now Serhetabat) which would have enabled them to build a line to Herat in a hurry, and the British set up a supply depot at Chaman on the Indian frontier containing the track components which would be required for their line to Kandahar.

References

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)