On the slow train

Call it the ultimate in military logistics. As land routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan are cut, sabotaged or otherwise interrupted, the U.S. military has developed alternative railroad routes that make the Orient Express look like a branch line.

They are called — rather prosaically — the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN. The main route begins at the port of Riga in Latvia, from where freight trains roll across Russia, and continues along the edge of the Caspian Sea. It crosses the deserts of Kazakhstan and into Uzbekistan. About 10 days after beginning their odyssey, the containers cross into Afghanistan, carrying everything from computers and socks to toilet paper and bottled water.


Source: To Afghanistan, on the slow train, Tim Lister, CNN, 29 November 2011

Mazar-i-Sharif after transition

NATO TV visits Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the northern province of Balkh, seven months after the first round of transition. Since July, Afghan forces have been fully in charge of Mazar’s security, with ISAF forces only operating in a supporting role. We talk to local people and the police chief for an update on the security situation.

Includes brief TEM2 action at 0:12.

Inter-continental route via Riga

The 2010-11 brochure of the Freeport of Riga Authority (“Your Reliable Partner on the Shores of the Baltic Sea”) has a page entitled The Fastest Way to Link the EU to the CIS and Asia, showing connections between the Latvian port and central Asia.

This includes a map of the route taken by trains carrying (non-lethal) supplies to Afghanistan.

Freeport of Riga Authority map showing rail freight route between Riga and Afghanistan
A dedicated block train service between
Riga and Hairaton (Afghanistan) for the
delivery of non-military goods to US troops
in Afghanistan. The train is operated by the
TransContainer company in Russia, and the
transit time is 10-11 days.

The map shows a route via Moscow, Samara, western Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, back into Uzbekistan to what appears to be Termez, and then to Dushanbe in Tajikistan. From Dushanbe the route runs south to Afghanistan, then via Kabul to somewhere in the middle of Afghanistan, and terminates at a place which is labelled “Hairaton” but is actually about where Herat is.

Presumably if the map is correct then transport onwards from Dushanbe is by road, although I might expect that traffic for central Afghanistan would actually be transshipped at Hayratan, while that for Herat would actually go by rail to Towraghondi; maybe there are political problems with going through Turkmenistan, and these can be avoided by using the route along the Uzbek/Turkmen border on a “corridor” basis?

According to the Port Authority’s website, the Afghan traffic was due to begin in 2009:

Regular cargo transit from Riga to Afganistan to be launched

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs consignment goods for international forces involved into peace maintenance mission will be sent from Riga to Afghanistan in the nearest two weeks. The agreement was concluded after General Duncan McNab, the commander of the US Armed Forces Transportation Command, has visited Latvia this week. Both American and Latvian representatives specify that these cargoes will not be military ones.

It was necessary to seek for other cargo transit routes due to security situation deterioration in Pakistan. That is why certain part of goods is delivered to Afghanistan through Georgia. Riga port will be the only port in the European region. From Latvia cargo will be delivered by rail through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

At present there are 500 containers at Riga port. “In the framework of his visit General McNab has visited Riga port, assessed Latvia’s participation in the process and said that everything is all right,” said high-ranking US Embassy diplomat that did not want to mention his name. The speed of transshipment of cargoes that are now in Riga will mostly depend on freight forwarding companies and countries involved into transportation chain. It is planned that several cargo trains will be sent from Riga to Afghanistan every week.

Source: Freeport of Riga Authority, 2009-05-08

A train seems to have run in February 2009,1 although NATO only announced a first trial shipment from Riga on 14 May 2010, arriving in Afghanistan on 9 June.2 There seem to various subtleties about NATO or individual countries making shipments, and lethal and non-lethal cargoes.

As well as the USA, other NATO members have sent supplies by rail via Riga. The first trains with cargos of the Great Britain, Belgium and Spain arrived already in May 14 [2010]. The cargos comprise construction materials, food. To a certain extent it is connected with safety of the cargos which is difficult to guarantee, for example, in Pakistan where a train of NATO cargos has already been attacked. 3

Russian agrees to facilitate transit traffic

NATO-Russia Council Joint Statement at the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council held in Lisbon on 20 November 2010

We, the Heads of State and Government of the NATO-Russia Council, met today in Lisbon and affirmed that we have embarked on a new stage of cooperation towards a true strategic partnership.

We underlined the importance of international efforts in support of the Afghan Government and in promoting regional peace and stability. In that context, the revised arrangements aimed at further facilitating railway transit of non-lethal ISAF goods through Russian territory are of particular value.

Source: NATO, 2010-11-20

Northern Distribution Network in action

Northern route eases supplies to US forces in Afghanistan at The International Institute For Strategic Studies. With a map, and a graph of container traffic.

Some interesting snippets:

  • Moving supplies via the northern rail route costs approximately 10% of the cost of movement by air.
  • NATO has also begun using the NDN. The first trial shipment of NATO cargo, consisting of 27 containers of construction materials and food supplies, departed from Riga, Latvia, in May 2010. Russia had offered transit to NATO at the Alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit, but it was not until 2009 that NATO began negotiating transit rights with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and these talks took almost a year to complete.
  • [The Termez to Hairatan railway] has reached its handling capacity of 4,000 tonnes of cargo per month. Until upgrades are completed, this border crossing is likely to remain a choke point. Meanwhile, railway experts have questioned whether the existing rail route through Uzbekistan is capable of handling the amount of traffic envisioned by the US military and its allies.

Latvia to Afghanistan NATO freight train arrives

NATO opens new communication lines to Afghanistan

Following the conclusion of arrangements for the transit of ISAF non-lethal cargo by rail with the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Belarus and Kazakhstan, the first trial shipment of the NATO train departed Riga, Latvia, on 14 May and arrived in Afghanistan on 9 June 2010.

Despite being delayed for several days en route, the trial has been heralded as a success in opening up new lines of communication to Afghanistan. Plans are already underway for follow-on shipments in the months ahead, subject to the demands of ISAF Troop Contributing Nations.

The train transited through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before entering Afghanistan at the border-crossing point at Hairaton. The shipment consisted of 27 twenty-foot ISO containers of construction materials, food supplies and a loading ramp from Belgium.

Several agencies were involved in arranging the shipment including the Allied Movement Coordination Centre at Allied Command Operations in Mons, Belgium; the Movement Coordination Centre Europe at Eindhoven, the Netherlands; the Danish Handling Agent, DSV, in Latvia; and the various military and rail authorities of the nations involved. Latvia acted as the Lead Nation in coordinating the various elements.

Use of the rail route costs approximately 10 per cent of the equivalent for movement by air and is more direct than using the southern surface transport route through Pakistan.

Source: NATO press release, 2010-06-09

Uzbek bottleneck on the Northern Distribution Network


Deirdre Tynan 2/02/10

On land, the NDN also appears to be experiencing some problems. Although the US Department of Defense insists the NDN is running at top capacity, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s mischievous envoy to NATO, told the Russian news paper Izvestia on January 26 that “there are some technical problems associated with an overload on one of the railway routes.”

Experts caution that additional land routes, whether routed through China or eastern Russia, could ultimately face the same problem — a bottleneck in Uzbekistan. “The problem isn’t the route to Central Asia, it is getting across Uzbekistan [to Afghanistan]. So you can have 10 ways to get to Termez, but what’s the difference?” a well-placed source told EurasiaNet.

Until major upgrades are completed at the Termez-Hairaton border crossing, and action taken to contain corruption and red tape, Uzbekistan is likely to continue to act as a choke point for US and NATO supplies bound for Afghanistan, the source added.
Source: Eurasianet , 2010-02-20

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