Afghanistan seeks Uzbek export route

Central Asian railway politics

Could the TAT railway become TUT?

Tajikistan is talking about constructing a new railway line that would connect the country to Russia via Uzbekistan. Some poorly considered language was used in the statement about this project and that was seized upon by Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry, which fired off an equally ill-advised statement rebuking Tajikistan.

[…]

the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan (TAT) railway line that finally made it from Turkmenistan into Afghanistan at the end of 2016.

Turkmen authorities might now wonder if Tajikistan could lose interest in TAT should the new railway project from Tajikistan through Uzbekistan advance.

[more…]

The Reasons Behind The Turkmen-Tajik Tiff, Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 29 January 2017.

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

Crossing the Friendship Bridge on foot

An article by traveller Jonny Blair describing crossing the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border. It includes pictures of a freight train crossing the Friendship Bridge as he walks across.

At this moment a freight train energises its way past me, just to remind me there are other people around. I briefly envisage Ringo Starr belting out a shit Thomas the Tank Engine line. This is truly off the rails though.

Two videos of walking over the Friendship Bridge:

Uzbek Railways awarded new Afghan operations and maintenance contract

Last year the Afghanistan Railway Authority invited expressions of interest in contracts to operate and maintain the 75 km railway from Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif.

On 15 March 20151 Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Works awarded Uzbek national railway UTY a new contract to operate and maintain the line.2

This contract replaces the original 2011 operating contract, which was worth worth $32m/year. On 8 February 2011 UTY established its Sogdiana Trans subsidiary to undertake operations and maintenance in Afghanistan.3

The latest contract runs for three years and will see UTY paid $19m/year to manage the line. UTY will pay taxes, and is to provide training for 50 Afghans each year. Until now the railway has only been used for imports, but the new contract should see the line used to carry a total of at least four million tonnes of Afghan goods for export.

Rail developments in northern Afghanistan

An interesting article about the Uzbekistan – Hayratan – Mazar-i-Sharif railway from the Fayetteville Observer: U.S. works to get Afghans on track with rail network, Drew Brooks, Fay Observer, 2 May 2014.

The article is well worth a read. Some highlights:

  • About 4 600 wagons a month use the line between the border and Mazar-e-Sharif.
  • More than 90% of the fuel used by coalition forces enters Afghanistan by rail through Hayratan.
  • The railway from Camp Marmal near Mazar-i-Sharif is a “secondary outlet” for military equipment leaving for ports in Latvia or Estonia.
  • The line is a “major thoroughfare” for coalition military equipment being shipped to Germany or France, but has only carried about 600 to 700 US containers
  • The line is operated by Uzbekistan as part of a bilateral agreement. The Uzbek government – not Afghanistan – collects money from the imports.
  • Afghanistan is expected to eventually take control of the line.
  • Afghanistan has already assumed responsibility for some tasks and purchased its first two locomotives [does anyone know what they are?].
  • The international co-operation that helped create the line is seen as integral to the development of a larger network.
  • “This is the safest place in all of Afghanistan.”

There are also a couple of photos, including a good aerial view of the area around the Friendship Bridge.

Finally: “The idea of a transportation network is a new idea for them,” Hakey said before motioning to a small wooden tabletop. “Back home, you have a lot of interest groups, there are rail fans. Here, you could probably lay out all the photos of Afghan rail on this table.”

Friendship Bridge opening photographs

A Russian-language photograph archive with images of the official opening ceremony for the Friendship bridge between the USSR and Afghanistan on 12 May 1982, and associated events including a tree-planting ceremony on the previous day.

The photos include a view of the bridge decorated with large photos of Soviet and Afghan bigwigs – I think they are Brezhnev on the left and Afghanistan’s President Karmal on the right(?).

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)