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)

Torghundi railway opening date

The short rail link from Serhertabat in Turkmenistan to Torghundi in Afghanistan has a much lower profile than the railway from Uzbekistan, presumably because of its back-of-beyond location and the general inaccessibility of Turkmenistan.

But it would appear that this was the first main line railway into Afghanistan. So when did it open? Presumably news from a remote border of the Soviet Union wasn’t plentiful at the time it did open, and modern mentions of the railway take a vague guess at little more the Soviet era, but can it be pinned down more accurately?

It certainly predates the Friendship Bridge line from Uzbekistan:

A provincial Soviet newspaper reported in November that work was under way on the “seventh span” of a road-and-rail bridge between the Soviet and Afghan banks of the Amu Darya. “It is planned to open traffic on the new bridge in May 1982,” the report said.
[…]
The railway station at Towraghondi, on Afghanistan’s northwest border with the Soviet Union, is being rebuilt with Soviet help.
Source: Soviets’ second front in Afghanistan, Ned Temko, Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor 4 December 1981

It seems the railway appears in a Russian Central Studio of Documentary Films production about Soviet assistance to Afghanistan, “Over the Highest Mountains” (Выше самых высоких гор). The Net Film webpage says the film is from 1960, but it includes “Khrushchev’s stay in Afghanistan (March, 1961.)”, so something isn’t quite right.

UPDATE: Khrushchev’s visit was in March 1960, his first visit to Afghanistan since 1955.1

This is a section of the English description, with the Russian words interspersed where the translation is a bit odd:

Reel 2
Description

Prime Minister of Afghanistan – Mohammed Daoud Khan has arrived in Turgundi station [станцию] to meet one of the first waggonages [составов, Google Translate of the Russian text says “trains”] which has arrived from the USSR.

A waggonage with vehicles, machines, road machinery is moving along a new railway road.

The road machinery designated for construction of Kushka-Terat-Kandahar highway, is being reloaded from platforms [платформ – flat wagon] to lorries.

A panorama of the reloading station – Turgundi.

Source: Over the Highest Mountains, Net Film

UPDATE: The text seems to have changed since I drafted the above post, and now says:

Delivery of goods from the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a new overland – by rail, going across the border to the border of the village Turgundi – the general plan.

Part of the railway – the average plan.

Composition is the engineer Ivanov.

Trains with goods in transit.
Source: Over the Highest Mountains, Net Film

Mohammed Daoud Khan was Prime Minister from 7 September 1953 to 10 March 1963, which suggests the railway opened at some point 1953-1960.

Транспортная блокада Афганистана is a Russian language article dated 20 May 2011, which says (thanks to Google Translate and a bit of guesswork) that the line was “built to facilitate the delivery of equipment and materials in the construction of highways Kushka – Herat – Kandahar”.

So if we can work out when the road works were undertaken, we might be able to pin down a date for the railway.

  1. Russians in Afghanistan, The Guardian, 3 March 1960, p10

Soviet-era photos of the Afghan rail links

Some RIA Novosti photos:

Soviet (troop?) train at the Turkmenistan border crossing

There is a train in the backgrounds of this RIA Novosti photo of the Kushka (Serhetabat) area.

  • Photo #644466: First stage in the Soviet troop withdrawal from AfghanistanSoviet soldiers-internationalists returning home from the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Turkmenistan, Kushka. 18.10.1986, Yuriy Somov

Also of interest:

  • Photo #578559: Reproduction of “View of the Trans-Caspian Railway” sketch by artist N. Karazin. The State Historical Museum. Russia, Moscow. 01.01.1910

Fuel discharge at rail terminals

NAPCO is a wholly Afghan-owned company that imports and distributes petroleum products all over Afghanistan:

We have built two modern trans-shipment points for discharging Rail Tank Cars (RTCs) into tanker trucks at Turghundi and Hairatan, giving NAPCO a significant competitive advantage in shipping fuel along the ‘Northern Route’ into Afghanistan

Source: Locations and Facilities, NAPCO

Meanwhile,

Presently, Gas Group imports propane gas from Turkmenistan by rail to Turghundi where there is a large 500 tonne storage facility with another 500 tonne facility in Herat. Tankers carry the gas by road from Herat through Kandahar to Kabul where there is an 800 tonne facility for storage and distribution.
Energy Solutions, Gas Group