Is the Marmaray tunnel a new Silk Road?

Probably not just yet.

Marmaray tunnel

The Marmaray tunnel between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul was officially opened today.

Once the Marmaray project is finished the tunnel will link upgraded suburban railway lines on one side of the city to the other, with a metro-style commuter service running through (not dissimilar to London’s Crossrail project). In the longer term the Marmarary tunnel may also be used by intercity and freight trains, but details of this still seem a little vague.

Perhaps inevitably, the new tunnel is being described a part of a new Silk Road: “The Marmaray will provide a non-stop railway route connecting China to Western European markets and vice versa as a modern day “Iron Silk Road””, reports Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News.

Is there any transport project east of the Landstraße1 which is not allegedly part of a new Silk Road?

There are news reports like this at BBC News: “In theory it brings closer the day when it will be possible to travel from London to Beijing via Istanbul by train.” Well, yes, but that is perhaps not very meaningful. There is already a rail route from London to Beijing via Russia, which avoids passing through places like Iran and Turkmenistan (and currently Uzbekistan, but that will be bypassed when the new north-south line is completed sometime soon-ish).

Going from Britain to China via Istanbul rather than Russia still requires two breaks of gauge, at the Iran/Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan/China borders instead of at the Poland/Belarus and Russia/China borders. The Turkish route also requires using a train ferry across Lake Van. The ECO Train plan for freight trains from Pakistan and Central Asia to Turkey seems to have fizzled out, and I think we can safely assume that the construction of a through rail route from Iran through northern Afghanistan to Tajikistan and China is probably some way off.

  1. Variants of the phrase “Asia/the Orient/the Balkans begins at the Landstrasse/Rennweg” seem to crop up frequently, referring to an area of Vienna and usually attributed to Klemens von Metternich. Googling seems to show that there are two quotes; one is apparently “Asien fängt auf der Landstraße an” by Ferdinand Kürnberger in Asiatisch und Sselbstloss of 16 November 1871, which is itself based on Metternich’s alleged comment about the Balkans beginning at the Rennweg.

ECO train update

I’ve recently received some details of the status of the ECO container train plans, from OTIF:

The idea was introduced in 2008 at the summit of ECO heads of state in Iran, and a trial run from Islamabad to Istanbul set off on 14 August 2009. A regular service started from 11 August 2010, and as of March 2013, 8 trains have operated from Pakistan and 6 from Turkey. The trains have a capacity of 26 TEU, and a running time of 14 days to cover 6349 km.

The service was suspended from January 2012. Work is underway to tackle the following issues:

  • The need to improve the track on the 680 km from Quetta to Taftan. A feasibility report has been completed, and financial assistance from prospective financial institutions is awaited.
  • Shortage of locomotives.
  • A need to include participation of private sector; a study of the feasibility of private sector involvement is underway.

ECO train returns

The Istanbul – Tehran – Islamabad eastbound return working of last year’s westbound Economic Cooperation Organization train left Istanbul on August 2, running via Iran’s Bam – Zahedan line.

The eastbound train of vans and container wagons – seen here in Turkey – was due to arrive in Islamabad on August 13, a faster transit time than last year’s train.

Does anyone know if it successfully made it to Iran and Pakistan?

Pakistan – Iran – Turkey container train

The demonstration Islamabad – Zahedan – Istanbul train started its journey from Pakistan on 14 August 2009.

ECO train

There are more details of the service (in Turkish) on the TCDD website. The photo is of a Pakistan Railways broad-gauge train. The containers are transhipped between gauges at Zahedan in Iran.

TCDD says the journey is 6566 km – other sources say about 6500 km with 1 900 km in Pakistan, 2 570 km in Iran and 2 036 km in Turkey – and the plan is to carry textile products, cotton, medical hand tools(?), toys, games and sporting goods westbound, with machinery and parts, chemical products, paper and paper products, cars spares and agricultural tools going eastbound.

According to PakTribune the journey “will take 15 days from Pakistan’s federal capital to the Turkish capital”, compared to “40-45 days from Karachi to a Turkish port” (do they really mean the Turkish capital, which is Ankara, or do they actually mean Istanbul, which people often mistakenly think is the capital?).

There is also a suggestion that Pakistan may join OTIF, which provides a common legal framework for international rail operations.

According to Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency, regular services are expected to begin next year.

There are details of the background to the train in an article by Mohammad Mirzaei Kahagh, Director Transport & Communications at ECO, in the May 2009 issue of ECO Times. Despite the photos used in ECO Times, I don’t think Norfolk Southern or Norway’s Flåm railway are involved in the project!

Update: Barrie Hughes of the Welsh Highland Railway construction website has spotted that the tracklaying picture in the ECO Times article shows Cae Pawb mixed gauge crossing on the WHR/Cambrian Coast line in Porthmadog, Wales!

Update: The train reached Tehran on 23 AugustIran Daily has a photo of it. Director of Iran’s Railway Company Hassan Ziyari said the railroad is safer and more environmental friendly compared to the roadways and other transport modes. The duration of the entire journey can be reduced to 12 days in the future, he added, and voiced Iran’s preparedness for cooperating in new plans to expand rail networks of ECO members. ECO train event in Tehran

Update: It got to Turkey on 25 AugustFirst train on Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul railway arrives in Turkey

Update: It arrived at Haydarpasa station, Istanbul’s Asian station, on 28 August.

Afghan and Turkey – Iran – Pakistan rail links discussed

The 2nd Meeting of Railway Committee of TTCC

(The ECO Secretariat, Tehran, 12 December, 2008)

The 2nd Meeting of Railway Committee of TTCC was held at the ECO Secretariat on 12 December, 2008. Delegations of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan participated in the Meeting. Delegations from the People’s Republic of China and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) also attended the Meeting.

The Meeting discussed cooperation between the ECO and UNECE on implementation of railway-related articles of Transit Transport Framework Agreement (TTFA) and important UNECE agreements. Those included the European Agreement on Important International Transport Links and Related Installations (AGTC) and the European Agreement on the Main International Railway Links (AGC). Possibilities of participation of the ECO in Phase II of the Euro-Asian Transport Links (EATL) Project were also considered.

The meeting discussed three important projects for improving the regional railway network in the ECO region. These included upgrading the capacity of Sarakhs Station in Iran, improving the Quetta–Taftan Railway in Pakistan and constructing railway bypass around Van Lake in Turkey.

In order to materialize operation of the ECO Container Train on Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad route, the Meeting requested Iran, Pakistan and Turkey to expedite holding a High Level Expert Group Meeting and a Meeting of the concerned Ministers to decide on technical, operational and other aspects of this important initiative. It was hoped that a demonstration train from Islamabad to Istanbul would be launched in 2009.

The Meeting considered ways to have the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Afghanistan connected to the ECO regional railway routes. The said member states would prepare detailed reports on the proposed routes, technical requirement, and expected cargo volumes.

The Meeting worked out the procedures for publishing ECO Railway Transit Routes Maps and the updated Railway Network Map.
Source: Economic Cooperation Organization press release, 2008-12-12