Chaman – Spin Boldak railway construction reportedly begins

Pakistan Railways has started work on a project to lay an 11 km railway line from Chaman to Spin Boldak in Afghanistan, SAMAA TV reported on 5 November 2021. “The construction material is being transported to the area to lay the track which will extend to the zero line, SAMAA TV‘s Saeed Achakzai reported on Friday. Pakistan Railways officials told SAMAA TV that the rails would soon be laid on the sleepers. The most recent effort to construct the Chaman-Spin Boldak line was launched last December when Railways Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed announced the revival of the project.”

There is also some history, citing this website :-)

Jalalabad and Spin Boldak railway agreements announced

President Karzai visited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif on 26 August 2013. Associated Press of Pakistan reports that The Prime Minister also announced that the two sides, in the meeting of their finance ministers, had agreed on several projects on communications, power and railway. […] The two sides also agreed on establishment of rail links to connect Torkham and Jalalabad as well as Chaman to Spin Bolduk.

This is not the first time the two railway projects have been reportedly agreed in some form.

Quetta - Chaman - Kandahar railway map from 1893

Building a Torkham – Jalalabad railway would require reinstating the washed away Khyber Pass railway to join the new line to the rest of the Pakistan Railways network.

A feasibility study for an extension of the existing railway to Chaman across border to Spin Boldak was reportedly completed in 2010, after a flurry of interest in the project in 2008-09.

The concept goes back a long time, with proposals for a line to Kandahar in the nineteenth century.

Chaman station in 1900 and 2009

Railway station, Chaman, 1900

Chaman Station.

Rail Projects Underway, But a Uniform Network Remains Elusive

I’ve had a number of e-mails lately about mentions of Afghan railways in Wikileaks, so I probably ought to do something with them.

This message was reported by Aftenposten on 25 January 2011 but dated “1.2.2010” by the newspaper (1 February 2010, assuming the newspaper is using European date formats). There doesn’t appear to be anything militarily sensitive here, just a bit of interesting stuff about railways, answering some questions. There is confirmation of the Iranian project, pessimism about the copper mine railway plan, and it ends by not sounding very keen on railway development at all.



E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/26/2035


SUBJECT: Rail Projects Underway, But a Uniform Network Remains Elusive
Classified By: Ambassador E. Anthony Wayne for reasons 1.4 b and d.

1. (U) Summary: While two rail construction projects in Afghanistan are underway

Hairatan – Mazar-i-Sharif and Iran – Herat

and several more are under discussion, the dream of a nationwide rail network remains remote. Small-scale projects sponsored by neighboring countries require different rail gauges, matching those of the countries these projects border; while the security situation is delaying two projects and likely deterring proposals for more. The enforcement of a single rail gauge is not practical since it would fail to make connections with at least half of Afghanistan´s neighbors. The Afghan Government must obtain funding f´ and build gauge changing stations if it is serious about connecting Afghanistan´s major population centers and industrial areas by train. End Summary.

Herat and Mazar: The Trains Have Left the Station

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2. (S) The rail link from Herat to Torbat-E Heydarieh, Iran, funded by the Iranian Government, is more than half complete. The section the Iranians are building and funding in Afghanistan is approximately 60 km from their border eastward toward Herat. The Afghan government under the original bilateral agreement with Iran is obligated to fund construction of the Afghan railroad’s second half, consisting of an additional 60 km of track onward to the western suburbs of Herat city. Iran uses standard gauge (1435 millimeter) track within Iran and is likely to use track to this specification within Afghanistan. (Note: standard gauge is the predominate gauge in the United States.)

It would be strange to use any other gauge for this section of line, as presumably no-one will want to take traffic from Iran or Herat to the frontier point and no further.

3. (SBU) Afghan Government officials toured the Iranian-funded portion of the project January 16 [2010] and were reportedly told by Iranian engineers that the rail bed was essentially completed and the rail laying could be completed in 60 days. They also met Afghan owners of property along the first half of the portion of the railroad to be funded by the Afghan government and informed them they would be compensated for the right of way within 20 to 30 days. The Afghan Ministry of Finance has allotted 97 million Afghanis (a little less than $2 million) for this. Herat Governor Nuristani said the Ministry of Finance has promised approximately $55 million for constructing the last stage of the railway, including compensating landowners for right of way for the second half of Afghan portion. Under the terms of the agreement to build the rail line, Afghanistan promised to fund construction of half of the project within its borders and Iran committed to the other half within Afghanistan, as well as extending its own rail line to the border with Afghanistan.

This ties in with what I have heard elsewhere, but puts some numbers on it.

4. (S) Extending from the Afghan/Uzbek border at Hairaton to Mazar-i-Sharif, an Asian Development Bank (ADB)-funded, Uzbek Railways-constructed track will soon be under construction. The 75 kilometer rail line will cost approximately $170 million. ADB awarded the contract in October 2009. Uzbek Government-owned Uzbek Rail agreed to begin construction in December and finish by the end of 2010. However, security concerns have delayed Uzbek Rail´s construction preparations, such as barracks for workers (all of whom will come from Uzbekistan). Uzbek Rail asked ISAF to provide security forces for the site. ISAF was unable to do so but did agree to share actionable intelligence with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and assured the company that ANSF would provide security. According to a source in Tashkent, Uzbek Rail deemed ANSF protection insufficient and entered contract talks with an American private security contractor. The source also indicated Uzbek President Islom Karimov had ordered the company to start work immediately in early January.

I wonder why ISAF was unable to be involved?

5. (U) The railroad will be 1520 millimeter gauge, the standard across the former Soviet Union. It will connect with existing Uzbek tracks at Termez, Uzbekistan. This rail line is important to coalition forces in Afghanistan, who hope it can speed up the delivery of crucial supplies through the Northern Distribution Network, routing shipments through the former Soviet states to Afghanistan.

This is where it gets interesting:

Pakistani and Chinese Projects Off the Rails

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6. (C) When China Metalurgical Corporation (MCC) won the tender for Aynak copper mine in 2008, its bid included a promise to build a rail line “associated with the project.” The line would carry copper concentrate and eventually smelted copper to more accessible locations for onward distribution. In January 2010, World-Bank-funded analysts and a private MCC contractor told us the company currently considers the railway not feasible. During a meeting at the mine in September 2009, MCC leadership mentioned what they viewed as “flexible” the requirement to put in the rail, which then-Minister of Mines Adel roundly contradicted, saying the rail was required and “non-negotiable.” A draft of the contract obtained by the Embassy states that “MCC has made a commitment to the Government of Afghanistan to construct, at MCC´s sole expense, a railway associated with the Project…the Parties acknowledge and agree thatthe failure to conclude a railway agreement within this timeframe shall constitute cause for the Parties to revoke this Mining Contract.” In a recent Ambassadorial meeting, Minister of Mines Shahrani said the Aynak contract requires MCC to build “two rail lines” one north and one east, a statement inconsistent with our unofficial copy of the contract. The Embassy and World Bank analysts continue to encourage the Ministry to make the Aynak contract public for transparency reasons. If this occurs, however, the fact that MCC has still not completed an addendum to the contract that would specify when and where rail will be built may provoke controversy.

7. (U) Pakistani media reported January 17 that work on a Quetta-Kandahar rail line would begin soon.

Although it has been going to begin soon for well over 100 years…

The track is complete from Quetta to the Pakistani border at Weesh Chaman, however, the remaining seven kilometers of track to the Afghan border post at Spin Boldak, as well as the remaining 111 kilometers to Kandahar, are “on hold” by the Afghan Ministry of Public Works due to security concerns. Assuming Afghanistan and Pakistan do not build a facility to transfer cargo or change gauges at the border, the rail gauge would be 1,676 millimeters, known as broad gauge, the standard across the Asian sub-continent.

A gauge changer wouldn’t make much sense on a line which only went as far as Spin Boldak.

Hodgepodge Gauges: Problematic but Not the End of the Line

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8. (U) With three different rail gauges potentially entering the country, freight will need to be offloaded at break of gauge or facilities must be built to lift cars from the tracks and change their bogies (the chassis of a railway car.)

As a very minor point of note, the message says “bogies”, rather than the more usual US-English term “trucks”.

Changing the bogies on a 50-car train should take approximately five hours and could coincide with customs processing. However, it will significantly delay future passenger and freight trains if the independent lines ever connect. Dependent on donor funding for its rail development, Afghanistan is presently not in a position to enforce a single national rail gauge and must plan to mitigate the economic impact of multiple gauges. The ADB and other independent studies have recommended that Afghanistan adopt the Russian 1520 millimeter gauge within Afghanistan and install gauge change stations at Herat and Kandahar City. (Note: Dual- or variable-gauge tracks avert the need for specialized facilities but cost significantly more to build. To Post´s knowledge, no donor has expressed interest in funding this additional cost. End note.)

Presumably this is saying 1520 gauge from Hairatan – Mazar-i-Sharif – Herat (interchange with 1435 line to Iran) – Kandahar (interchange with 1676 line to Pakistan). That leaves open the question of the Chinese copper line, were it to be deemed feasible.

9. (U) Rail traffic volumes are also an issue. The general rule of thumb is that a rail line is not economically viable with less than 5 million tons of throughput. Anything less than this is more efficiently handled by trucks.

Anyone got any thoughts on those figures?

The anticipated volumes from and through Afghanistan to Iran fall far short of this.

10. (U) Comment: Many countries, including Australia, Tanzania and Angola, operate railroads of different gauges.

As I understand it Angloa is all 1067 mm (Cape gauge) now. The railways are all independent lines running inland from ports, with little prospect of lines being built parallel to the coast to link them up.

These gauge differences become significant, however, as the number of gauges proliferate within country. On the other hand, even the most far-sighted donor would hesitate to build a link to Afghanistan requiring cargo to be offloaded at its border or the construction of an expensive break of gauge facility. It is clearly in the interests of Afghanistan´s neighbors to seek matching rail gauges within Afghanistan, and, unfortunately, Afghanistan is not in a position to adopt a single common rail gauge that would isolate it from at least half of its neighbors. We are encouraging the Afghan Government to plan wisely when evaluating future rail projects and consider the impact of volume and gauge changes on rail efficiency and economy.
End comment.

11. Embassy Tashkent has cleared this cable.


Code for “we don’t think railways are a good idea”?

There are also cables regarding 05.10.2009: Security and Social Issues at Aynak Copper Mine:

Reportedly, MCC has also signed a memorandum of agreement committing to lay a rail line running north and south, connecting Aynak with the proposed Hajigak iron mine and its associated coking coal mine in Bamyan province.

4. (SBU) During a September 17 [2009] meeting with Mining Minister Adel, Aynak Police Commander Mohammad Mosen, and U.S. military and civilian representatives, MCC-Aynak President Zou suggested that MCC may not build a rail line for Aynak. Minister Adel insisted that MCC has a contractual commitment to install the line, but admitted in a later aside that the rail contract had not yet been signed.

And 10.12.2009: Chinese Firm Re-Thinks Afghan Mining Contract After Difficulties Of The Aynak Copper Mine Project:

[China Metallurgical Group Corporation President Shen Heting told a visiting U.S. delegation] existing roads would be sufficient to transport the copper from the mine and that construction of a railway from the mine to the Pakistan port of Gwadar was not economically justified. However, he reiterated that the Chinese government was urging the company to honor its commitments, suggesting that MCC might eventually build some railway.

Memorandum for Kandahar and Jalalabad railways

Has anyone got a copy of the text of the joint communique?

Pakistan, Afghanistan agree to establish rail links

By Sajid Chaudhry

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and Afghanistan on Wednesday signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for establishing the Torkham-Jalalabad and Chaman-Spinboldak-Kandhar rail links.

The MoU, covering feasibility studies for both the projects, was signed by Federal Railways Minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour and Afghan Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal on Wednesday.

However, both countries failed to break the deadlock over the transit facility for Indian goods that would be sent to Afghanistan via Pakistan under the proposed Afghan -Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA).
Source: Daily Times, 2010-07-08

The Jalalabad plan presumably means rehabilitating the Khyber Pass line and then extending it over the border into Afghanistan for the first time.

Quetta to Kandahar feasibility study

Feasibility report of starting railway service from Quetta to Kandahar okayed

QUETTA: The feasibility report of starting railway service from Quetta to Kandahar has been prepared and sent to the Afghan government and its response is awaited.

This was stated by deputy superintendent of Pakistan Railway Balochistan while addressing a press conference at his office here on Saturday.
Source: Online-International News Network, 2010-01-17

This is the Chaman – Spin Boldak – Kandahar line, which has been under discussion for a very long time.

China’s interest in Pakistan rail links

In an article at Asia Times Online, Syed Fazl-e-Haider writes about co-operation between China and Pakistan, including plans to extend the Khyber Pass line and build the Spin Boldak line. There is also discussion of a direct China – Pakistan railway.

Chinese shun Pakistan exodus

China has also shown interest in early laying a track between the Pakistan border town of Torkham and Jalalabad in Afghanistan, as the Chinese want to use the Pakistan Railways network to transport their goods and equipment for the development of copper mines and various other projects in Afghanistan. Separately, Pakistan Railways has completed a feasibility study for a rail section between Chaman, in Balochistan, and Kandahar in Afghanistan that is part of a proposed link across Afghanistan to Turkmenistan.
Source: Asia Times Online, 2009-09-11

Chaman – Spin Boldak railway progress at last?

Various recent news reports, when taken together, imply that there could be some progress with the plans for a rail link from Pakistan to Spin Boldak.

This would be a 10-15 km extension of the Pakistan Railways line which currently terminates at Chaman, just short of the Afghan border.

On the other hand, it might just be talk. Does anyone know anything hard about what might be happening?

Building this long-proposed extension would seem to make sense. A line from Chaman to Spin Boldak would just be a cross-border extension of Pakistan Railways’ 1676 mm gauge rail network to the first settlement on the Afghan side of the border.

It would be comparable to the lines to Hayratan and Towraghondi in the north of Afghanistan, which are simply cross-border extensions of the Uzbek and Turkmen railway networks. Customs formalities and the like could be completed with Afghanistan, rather than Pakistan.

View Chaman – Spin Boldak railway in a larger map

Pakistan has helped Kabul to construct Chaman-Kandahar Rail Link claims a 1 August 2009 report by NN Khattak in The Frontier Post.

Blame game must end

Pakistan is doing its best within its resources to help Afghanistan in its rebuilding efforts. Both countries agreed to cooperate on a pipeline project that would transport energy from Central Asia via Afghanistan into Pakistan. There is also talk of running a railroad through Afghanistan that would connect the republics of Central Asia with Pakistan and, through Pakistan’s ports, to overseas markets. Similarly, there are ongoing discussions about bus links between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan has constructed 75km long Torkham-Jalalabad Road and internal roads in Jalalabad to promote Afghanistan’s economy and trade. To bring the people of both countries closer, Pakistan has helped Kabul to construct Chaman-Kandahar Rail Link. This will help the people of Afghanistan to enter a new phase of industrialisation and development. Pakistan has provided 100 buses to Afghanistan to promote people-to-people contacts. The bus service between the cities of Pakistan and Afghanistan would enhance the cooperation between the people of both countries.

Source: The Frontier Post, 2009-08-01

Then there is this:

Pakistan turns to China to modernise railways

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and China have agreed to cooperate for modernization of Pakistan Railways network, DawnNews quoted Railways Minister Haji Ghulam Ahmed Bilour as saying.

Bilour said that Pakistan Railways wanted to strengthen and expand the Torkham railway line [Khyber Pass] to meet the international standard, Quetta-Chaman-Kandahar section [Chaman – Kandahar doesn’t yet exist], Quetta-Iran [presumably the Zahedan route], and Quetta-Peshawar railway link via Zhob- D I Khan-Bakhar.

The railways minister said that Chinese side emphasized the need for early laying of Torkham-Jalalabad railway track [an extension of the Khyber Pass line] as they wanted to connect this section with Afghanistan so that they could use the Pakistan Railways network to transport their goods and equipment for the development of copper mines and various other projects launched in Afghanistan.

Source: Dawn, 2009-07-28

A line from Chaman across the border to Spin Boldak has been discussed for a very long time, with Britain contemplating building a line on to Kandahar in the nineteenth century. A line from Quetta to New Chaman opened by 1891, running 5 km beyond Chaman fort to terminate within 200 m of the frontier. This railway did not enter Afghanistan as such – the 1893 Durrand line was drawn around it – but rumour had it that track materials were stockpiled in case a military emergency required the rapid construction of a line over the border.

Proposals for the extension have resurfaced every so often, including in 1966, when Railway Gazette reported “Work on the proposed rail link between Chaman in Pakistan and Spin Baldak in Afghanistan is to begin soon and will take about a year and a half to complete. The link will be over seven miles long and will cost about $800 000. Over two miles of the link will be in Pakistani territory.”

This was to have been funded by the US Agency for International Development, but was canceled in 1968. Despite this, the line is actually shown on some maps.

The scheme has been discussed many times since, with studies in 2004 and 2007. In May 2009 the government of Pakistan said preliminary work had begun.

Maybe something is finally happening? ISAF is in need of a reliable transport route to Afghanistan, and perhaps has been the spur to action which has been needed?

In the longer term and given a suitable political climate, a Chaman – Spin Boldak line could be extended onwards a further 80-100 km from Spin Boldak to the city of Kandahar. This would be a significant destination in its own right, rather than just a border town. And from Kandahar, we can look at the map and dream of taking the permanent way onwards towards Herat, and thus Iran. And maybe one day Central Asia…

‘Preliminary work’ started on Kandahar and Jalalabad lines

An official government of Pakistan press release dated 19 May 2009 claims preliminary work is underway for the long-planned Chaman – Spin Boldak – Kandahar extension of Pakistan’s rail network into Afghanistan.

The press release also says similar work is underway on a line from Peshawar to Jalalabad; presumably the rehabilitation of the famous Khyber Pass line combined with an extension over the frontier.

PR No. 206

UKRAINian ambassador calls on minister for railways

Islamabad; May 19, 2009

Ukrainian Ambassador, Mr. Ihar Pasko called on Federal Minister for Railways Ghulam Ahmad Bilour here today.

The matters of mutual interests in the backdrop of extending cooperation and business in Railway sector between the two countries came under discussion.

The Federal Minister for Railways briefed the Ambassador about on-going development in Railways Sector and told that preliminary work has been started on Chaman-Qandhar section and Peshawar-Jalalabad section.

The Minister said that establishment of rail link with Afghanistan, Pakistan may provide an easy access to Central Asia Russia and rest of Europe.

The Ukrainian Ambassador briefed the Minister about the achievement and development of Ukrainian Railways and expressed his eagerness to extend cooperation in railway sector with Pakistan.

The Ambassador highlighted the characteristics of Ukrane locomotives, Tracks and other technicalities.

The Secretary and Chairman Railways welcomed the offer made by Ambassador and said that Ukraine might also participate in Tender Process by following the rules and procedures laid down by the Railways Ministry regarding procurement.

The Secretary Railways further said that the exchange of Railway experts from both sides will benefit each other in professional backdrop.
Source: Press Information Department, Government of Pakistan 2009-05-19

Unfortunately it does not specifiy what “preliminary work” means.

Reduction in deficit of Pakistan Railway witness in current financial year: Bilour.

ISLAMABAD, 13 May, 2009 (Frontier Star) — Federal Minister for Railways, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has said […] while talking to media on the occasion of inauguration of “Islamabad Express” […] the under-construction Railway project from Chaman to Afghanistan would be completed very soon, reducing not only the travelling difficulties of passengers but also save their time.
Source: The Free Library/Asia Pulse/Frontier Star

The idea of a line to Kandahar has been discussed for many years – it was one of the first proposals for an Afghan railway way back in the 19th century.

On 1 October 2004 the Pakistan Times reported:

Quetta-Kandhar Bus Service to begin Shortly

[A meeting between] Governor Balochistan Owais Ahmed Ghani and Governor Kandhar Engineer Mohammed Yousuf Pashtoon […] decided to start construction of Railway line between Pakistani border town Chaman and Afghan city Kandhar for which survey has already been conducted. […] The 100 km Railway track would be completed at an estimated cost of US dollar 110 million with the coorporation of Pakistan Railways.
Source: Pakistan Times 2004-10-01

Studies for two Pakistan Railways extensions

In November 2008 Hail Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, Pakistan’s Railways Minister, told the National Assembly that two studies for railways were being considered.

One plan is to revive the long-standing proposal to extend the Pakistan Railways network by about 10 miles from the current terminus at Chamman to reach Spin Boldak across the border in Afghanistan, providing a railhead for Kandahar.

The other plan is much more substantial, being a 662 km link from Havelian in Pakistan to China via the Khunjerab Pass, which reaches an altitude of 4700 m. However it had been said in September that this route was not commercially feasible.

Pak-China rail link pre-feasibility study completed, National Assembly told

Bilour told the house in response to a question raised by MNAs including Fauzia Wahab, Muhammad Asad Khan, Yasmeen Rehman and Shereen Arshad Khan, that the PC-I for Chaman Spinbuldak (Afghanistan bordering town) rail link was completed with the cost of Rs 417 million in June 2004 and the project was to be executed by M/s Railcop, however, work could not be started due to non-issuance of NOC by Afghanistan government. The revised cost of PC-l is now assessed Rs 943.00 million, he added.

He said that the Pak-China Rail link pre-feasibility study has been completed through two consulting firms M/s L.L.F of German-Austria and M/s Don fang Electric Corporation (DEC) of China and following route has been recommended for detailed feasibility. Havelian-AbbotAbad – Batagram – Thakot-Bridge-Bèsham-Pattan -Dassu-Chillas – Gilgit-Karimabad – Sost-Mintaka Pass. The length of this route is 662 km and tentative cost is US $10.237 billion to be completed in 15 years, he informed.


Source: Business Recorder, 2008-11-11

There are more details of the feasibility studies in the February 2007 Asia Times Online article China-Pakistan rail link on horizon, by Syed Fazl-e-Haider. This says:

As a part of its development plan for its transport and communications network, Pakistan Railways has completed a feasibility study of the Chaman-Kandahar section for laying railway tracks between Pakistan and Turkmenistan through Afghanistan.
Source: Asia Times Online, 2007-02-24

Chaman – Spin Boldak railway plans in the 1960s

Some old articles from Railway Gazette regarding a unrealised 1960s scheme for a rail link from the Pakistan Railways railhead at Chaman to Spin Boldak, a short distance across the border in Afghanistan.

Spin Boldak is a major border crossing point, and it seems that railway extension plans have been talked about every so often.

20 May 1966
Talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan were held on May 4 1966 regarding building a railway to Spin Baldak. Short

2 September 1966
Construction to Spin Baldak “is to begin soon”.

17 May 1968
Bad news: the Spinbaldak scheme, which was to have been financed by the US Agency for International Development, has been abandoned.

(clippings © Railway Gazette International)