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)

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

Steam locomotive on top of an Uzbek mountain

On top of a hill in a remote area of Uzbekistan is a steam locomotive painted in the colours of the national flag. What is it, and how on earth did it get up there?

(Photo: Lisa K Walker 2009-06-13)

The locomotive stands on a hill overlooking at Oqrabot (or Акрабат (Akrabat) in Russian) station. Oqrabot is on the railway line from Karshi to Kumkorgan which opened in August 2007, providing a route to Termez which runs entirely within Uzbekistan, eliminating the need to for trains to transit Turkmenistan.

The station is said to be the highest point on the route, at 1510 m, and possibly the highest point on the rail systems of the whole CIS.

(Photo: Dmitry Kolesnikov 2009-03-06)

There is a close-up view of the locomotive in August 2010 on the Steam Engine IS website.

The locomotive carries the number Эр772-91, which transliterates to Er772-91. A vast number of Series E locomotives were built by a factories across eastern Europe, and this one has a plate showing it was built by CKD at Prague in Czechoslovakia; a date of 1951 is mentioned in the comments on Steam Engine IS (it is of course possible that the plate is a modern addition and the number is incorrect for the particular locomotive).

In an article “Red Star Steam” over at the The International Steam Pages, Colin Boocock provides a summary of Soviet standard steam locomotive classes. The Series E was based on a pre-Soviet design. This was developed into the Eu for mass production, followed by the Em and then from 1935-36 the Er, which had a larger grate area and higher superheat; nearly 3000 were built.

More than 10 670 Series E were locos were built in total, “by far the largest number of a single type ever to run in the world”. Despite making “a German Kriegslok look small”, many ended their days as shunters as the USSR really didn’t go in for small locomotives.

According to Tim Littler, locomotive Эр772-9 previously formed part of the “strategic reserve” at Buvaida, around 23 km northeast of Kokand; the reserve is understood to have had 20 Type Er locomotives, which even into the mid-1990s (and possibly into the 2000s?) were maintained at Kokand depot and steamed and run for 100 km every year. They were reported as scrapped 2001, but confirmed to still exist in September 2002 and October 2009. There is reported to be an ‘Eu’ preserved in a park in Kokand, which is also probably an Er.

There are some more photos of Эр772-9, taken by Rifat Irmuhamedov, at the My Tashkent website, where Volodya explains that the locomotive was cut into several pieces and pulled up the hill by a heavy tractor, before being welded together again.

I assume the livery, which replicates the Uzbek flag, is down to modern imagination rather than a colour scheme which the loco would have carried in service.

The poles and wires are apparently for floodlighting the locomotive at night – anyone got any pictures of that?

Thanks to Harvey Smith and Tim Littler for providing background information and to Lisa Walker and Dmitry Kolesnikov for the photographs.