Tajik rail link rethought?

“Afghan Province Upset At Being Left Out Of Touted Rail Network”, reports Abubakar Siddique at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on 31 July 2013.

The planned railway across northern Afghanistan from the Turkmenistan border to Andkhoy and then east to Tajikistan was due to connect with an extension of the Tajik railway network at Shirkhan Bandar in Kunduz province.

But a new, shorter route given tentative approval this month by the Afghan Public Works Ministry would bypass Konduz by linking the neighboring Afghan province of Balkh to Tajikistan at a point further west along the two countries’ common border.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Governor of Kunduz, Mohammad Anwar Jagdalak, is unimpressed. He told RFE/RL “This new proposed link will prove disastrous for Shir Khan Bandar,” and “We are petitioning our president to plead that the move violates the principle of balanced regional development.”

Afghanistan’s Minister of Public Works Najibullah Ojan told RFE/RL that the time and cost needed to complete the “momentous project” had led the authorities to consider building a 50-60 km temporary rail link on a shorter route, but this line would be dismantled once the longer route via Kunduz was completed in “about four years”.

Presidents launch construction of Turkmenistan – Afghanistan – Tajikistan railway

Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon were in Atamyrat on 5 June 2013 for an elaborate ceremony to launch construction of the first phase of a railway planned to link the three countries.


The helicopters took the leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan from the airport in Turkmenabat to Atamyrat town, where the ceremony would be held. The leaders of Turkmenistan, the Republic of Tajikistan and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan signed a message to the descendants, put it into a capsule and poured the first shovels of concrete, thus giving a kick-start to the construction of the new railway.
Source: Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway to be built, State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH), Turkmenistan: the Golden Age Online Newspaper, 5 June 2013

Design work for the initial 85 km from Atamyrat (formerly called Kerki) to the Imamnazar border crossing between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan was completed in 2012. Following a March 2013 meeting between the presidents, Afghanistan formally invited the Turkmen authorities to undertake studies for a 38 km continuation across the border to Aqina and Andkhvoy. This could be funded and built by Turkmenistan. It would provide a second rail link between the countries, in addition to the line to Towraghondi.

The longer-term plan is to continue the new railway across northern Afghanistan to Sherkhan Bandar and Tajikistan.

…[the Presidents] of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan arrived by helicopter at Atamyrat station. Here, the leaders of three countries signed a letter addressed to posterity, put it in a capsule and place it in concrete, thus giving a symbolic start to construction of a new railway. In their presence, the first rails of Atamyrat-Imamnazar-Akina-Andhoi section of the main railway were laid. This section is stretching for 123 kilometers. The Turkmen part of the railway from Atamyrat station to Akina station, the first station of the new railway in Afghanistan, will be constructed by Turkmen specialists. The length of this portion is 87 kilometers.

Source: Construction of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway launched, Turkmenistan.ru, 6 June 2013.

Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan sign railway construction MoU

MoU of Railway Construction Signed between Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan

March 20, 2013- On his first day of the visit, President Hamid Karzai attended a trilateral summit held in Ashgabat between Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

At the end of the summit, the three Presidents signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the establishment of rail transport infrastructure linking Turkmenistan and the Islamic Afghanistan and Afghanistan and the Republic of Tajikistan.

According to the memorandum, the Parties within one month from the date of signing of this Memorandum will hold experts meeting from the relevant ministries and agencies of the three countries for detailed study of routes, as well as organizational, legal and financial bases for the practical implementation of the railway construction project. The construction of this railway will begin in early July of the current year.

The railway will start from Atamurat -Ymamnazar of Turkmenistan leading to Akina-Andkhoy of Afghanistan, then connecting to Tajikistan via Shirkhan port of Kunduz province .

Following the signing ceremony, the three Presidents attended a joint press conference where they described this project as important for enhanced trade and economic development of countries in the region.

At the press conference, President Karzai said that this railway would not only link Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan but it would also play an important role in strengthening economies of countries and peoples in this region.

The President added, by signing the memorandum, they took another step for their peoples’ well-being which would result in economic growth for the three countries, bringing them a brighter future.

President Karzai is scheduled to attend Nowruz International Festival tomorrow

Source: Office of the President, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 20 March 2013

There is also a statement from the Government of Turkmenistan (in Russian), but it doesn’t add anything.

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

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

China to Afghanistan via Tajikstan

Zeitschrift der OSShD is a magazine published six times a year in German, Russian and Chinese versions by OSJD, the Organisation for Co-Operation between Railways. The 2/2011 (316) issue has an article (pp1-6) “Tadjik steel railway lines – conquering the mountain peaks” by Amonullo Hukumatullo, head of Tajikistan’s national railway Rohi Ohani Tojikiston. It gives an overview of the railway company, and includes some information about proposed rail links to Afghanistan.

A map accompanying the OSJD article shows a proposed railway from Kashgar (Kashi) in China to Afghanistan. From Kashgar the line runs though Sary-Taşh in Kyrgyzstan (from where a branch would run north to Osh), crossing the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan border near Карамык (Karamyk), meeting the existing line from Душанбе (Dushanbe) at Иляк (Ilyak?) a short distance southeast of Ваҳдат (Vakhdat), then running to Яван (Yavan?), and onwards over a line which is currently under construction1 to reach Курган-Тюбе (Kurgan-Tyube, and countless other romanisations).

Leaving the existing Uzbekistan to Kurgan-Tyube line at Джалоліддіна Румі (Jaloliddina Rumi) a new 59 km line costing USD73.2m will run to the Tajik border post at Нижний Пяндж (Nizhniy Panj, which is the Russian name; it’s Панҷи Поён (Panji Poyon) in Tajik).

(There was once a 750 mm gauge line on this section of the route, built in 1929-31 and opened in early 1932 but closed in the 1990s.2 In 2007 a road bridge was opened over the river Amu or Panj Darya which forms the Tajik-Afghan border, called – inevitably – the “Bridge to Friendship”.)3

The map shows the railway entering Afghanistan at Shirkhan Bandar, and continuing to Kunduz. From Kunduz proposed lines are shown running south to Kabul and the Khyber Pass, with a spur to Aynak for the mine, and also west along the northern corridor to Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Iran.

There are the usual comments in the article about transit traffic, and how a line though Afghanistan would would mean [insert name]-stan would not have not send traffic though [next door]-stan in order to reach Iran. Tajikistan currently has three sections of railway, but they run east-west and are not interconnected with each other except through Uzbekistan, and there have been claims that Uzbekistan has been delaying Tajikistan-bound traffic.

The magazine article also discusses the gauge problem, coming down in favour of 1435 mm standard gauge for the China – Iran route, rather than the 1520 mm of the existing lines Tajikistan.

Here is a rough attempt at plotting the places in question on a map.

View China – Tajikistan – Afghanistan railway in a larger map

This posting is based on the German version of the OSJD magazine, because I can read a little German. However the place names in the magazine have gone from Cyrillic (and probably Russian rather than Tajik) to German romanisation, though the map itself is in Cyrillic. While I have tried to sanitise the names, they have possibly got mangled en route. No offence is intended if your favourite spelling has been missed! It doesn’t help that some places have changed their names over the years – while it’s perhaps no surprise that Stalinabad has disappeared from the map (it is now Dushanbe), it is less obvious that Kolkhozobod became Jaloliddina Rumi in 2007, in honour of a C13th poet.

Tajikistan is a bit of an information black hole – I can’t even find many photos of trains there, or an official railway website.

Back in January 2011, Hukumatullo told a news conference that more than 160 000 tons of freight were shipped to Afghanistan via Tajikistan in 2010: Since there is now direct rail link connecting Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the cargo was transported from the Tajik railroad station Kolkhozobod to the Afghan settlement of Sherkhan Bandar by vehicles.4 I suspect now should read no, and vehicles means road vehicles.

  1. Tajikistan: Rail Link to Afghanistan under Construction, 19 March 2009, www.EurasiaNet.org
  2. Road vs. Rail. A Note on Transport Development in Tadzhikistan, MV Hambly, Soviet Studies Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jan., 1968), pp. 421-425, Taylor & Francis Ltd
  3. News: Afghanistan, Tajikistan dedicate ‘Bridge to Friendship’, 3 September 2007, Combined Joint Task Force – 82 PAO, DVIDS
  4. More than 160,000 tons of cargo shipped to Afghanistan via Tajik territory, 20 January 2011, Payrav Corshanbiyev, ASIA-Plus news agency, Dushanbe

“Considerable progress” with the extension of regional railways

Statement by Afghanistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the 19th Session of the ECO Council of Ministers- in Istanbul on 22 December 2010:

As H.E. President Karzai stated in his important speech in the Kabul Conference of July 20th this year, Afghanistan in the future will be the nexus of regional economic cooperation and we are committed to share the benefits of Afghanistan’s centrality with our neighbors and countries in the region particularly the ECO member states to increase transit of goods and energy as well as movement of people within our region.

Our national road and railway programs have been precisely designed to serve this important vision of Afghanistan for regional cooperation.

It was in September this year that the ECO Truck Caravan passed along some of the newly built regional, national and provincial roads across the northern Afghanistan which is clearly indicative of the progress made in the implementation of our National Road Program.

Moreover, considerable progress has been made on the extension of regional railways to Afghanistan and through Afghanistan to other countries including the railway route from China along Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan to Afghanistan, and through Afghanistan to Iran, Turkey and Europe.

In this connection, I am pleased to refer to the construction of the Hiratan – Mazar-e-Sharif railway which will be completed in the next few weeks; the ongoing construction of the Sangan-Herat railway and the ongoing preparation of the pre-feasibility study report for the Kandahar- Chaman railway.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 2010-12-25

ADB funding more studies

On 16 June 2010 Asian Development Bank approved a further USD700 000 from its Technical Assistance Special Fund for:

A study on railway development for Afghanistan completed for the following routes: (i) From Hairatan at the border with Uzbekistan to Heart [Herat] in the west, via Mazar-e-Sharif; (ii) from Shirkhan Bendar at the border with Tajikistan, via Kunduz to Naibabad [which is on the line under construction from Hayratan] joining Mazar-e-Sharif to Heart; (iii) from Torkham at the border with Pakistan to Jalalabad; and (iv) Spainboldak at the border with Pakistan to Kandahar.

Source: Railway Development Study (Supplementary) : Afghani., Is Rep. of, 2010-06-16

Taking it literally, this seems to miss out the link needed from Chaman in Pakistan over the border to Spin Boldak in Afghanistan.

Narrow gauge railways in Tajikistan

Narrow gauge railway Dushanbe – Kurgan-Tube – Kulyab, Nizhniy Panj” – in Russian, but Google Translate works pretty well.

The 750 mm gauge railway network in the southwest of Tajikistan was started in 1929. Originally there were two unrelated lines: Kurgan-Tube – Nizhniy Panj…

Nizhniy Panj is on north side of the river which forms the border with Afghanistan. The railway closed in the 1990s, but there is some talk of building a new line in the area with a bridge to Afghanistan and onward connections to Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif and beyond.

There is also a link to a general history of railways in Tajikistan (in Russian).