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Afghanistan's First New Railroad On Track

New Afghan Railroad Nears Completioni
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October 14, 2010
Afghanistan its building its first functioning railroad in over 100 years. The route, intended mainly for freight deliveries, will connect the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif with the Uzbek border and the outside world.
By Charles Recknagel
MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- From the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif to the Uzbek border, the land runs flat with barely a hillock to block the way.

It is perfect terrain for building a railway. So, since Afghanistan inaugurated construction of its northern rail line in May, progress has been fast.

Now, the Uzbek company contracted to lay the track has completed almost all of the 75-kilometer line. According to the schedule, the construction should be finished by the end of this year.

If so, Afghanistan will get its first railroad in more than 100 years. That is when a former monarch, Amir Abdurrahman, banned rail lines as potential invasion routes.

Officials say the railroad will speed up freight deliveries across the Uzbek border dramatically.

"The [delivery time] will decrease by 50 percent because the speed of rail transport is faster, since the wagons don't have to stop," says Ahmad Wali Sangar, an economic adviser to the government of Balkh Province, where Mazar-e Sharif is located. "When the cargo is loaded on the train wagons, the trader's products will be transported straight to Afghanistan."

Currently, the stops can be endless.

Revitalize The Economy


Everything headed by rail for Afghanistan has to stop at the Uzbek border and be offloaded to trucks. The offloading and resulting backups and customs checks can means weeks of delay before the cargo continues on its way.

The railroad will solve that problem by allowing containers -- which are sealed at their point of origin -- to move across the border without interruption to a major new freight terminal near Mazar-e Sharif's airport. From the terminal, the cargo can be forwarded by truck or air, making Mazar-e Sharif a major distribution hub for the country.

The Asian Development Bank, which is funding the construction with some $165 million, hopes the railway line will help revitalize the Afghan economy by bringing in goods faster and cheaper than is now possible. Among the key imports are grain, fuel, and foodstuffs from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and, farther afield, from Russia.

But the rail from the border will also enable Washington and NATO to bring in more supplies for troops, reducing the coalition's dependence on routes through Pakistan where militants routinely attack trucks. And that may make the railroad a tempting target for the Taliban.

Currently, the railroad is guarded by a force of 500 police. The headquarters of the force is a small, windswept outpost halfway between Mazar-e Sharif and the Afghan border crossing of Hairaton, where the new rail line starts.

Cause To Worry

General Asghar Asghary, the head of the force, receives visitors in the post's single small concrete building. He says there are other posts scattered along the length of the track and that the force is strong enough to protect the line when it becomes operational.

General Asghar Asghary
"We won't need more police than we have now. The structure we have is entirely capable," Asghary says. "And even during the last three to four months, the company's trains have been coming and going a lot with workers and they are being protected."

Still, there is increasing cause to worry. The Taliban have grown powerful over the past two years in several northern provinces, particularly in the neighboring province of Konduz. Already the militia regularly attacks fuel trucks traveling from the Tajik border through Konduz and Baghlan provinces to the coalition's base at Bagram airport near Kabul.

Asghary says that U.S. officers initially visited his headquarters and promised help, including with constructing fortified perimeters around the posts. But they have not returned since and he does not know whether the aid will ever arrive. His own budget is not enough to do more than the minimum needed to fortify and winterize the outposts.

For now, guarding the railroad is light work and construction goes on unimpeded.

Lack Of Technical Skills

Each day the police escort the Uzbek workers building the railroad to their construction site and then escort them home again to their camp in Hairaton.

The entirely Uzbek team is doing the work because Afghanistan long ago lost the equipment and technical skills needed for the job. But once the railway is built, some of the Uzbek technical staff will stay on to train Afghan personnel and create the basis for Afghans to extend the track further themselves in the future.

Sangar says the country today has nowhere near the money needed to build a railway network connecting its different regions. But the track which will soon be finished in Mazar-e Sharif, plus another track currently being built in Iran toward the Afghan border, create the starting points for a wider system.

Iran has reportedly completed two-thirds of a 190-kilometer rail bed from its town of Khaf to link with Herat.

If Herat were one day connected by rail to Mazar-e Sharif, some 700 kilometers away, northern Afghanistan would not only acquire a major rail line but also become a transit country for the shortest rail link between the Central Asian countries and the Gulf or Indian Ocean ports.

Whether that rail line is built will depend upon outside funding. The Asian Development Bank is funding technical surveys for such a track across northern Afghanistan but has made no commitments.
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Zoltan from: Hungary
October 15, 2010 09:40
Moreover a railway through Northern-Afghanistan could serve as a transport link between Iran and the also Persian speaking Tajikistan. And from Tajikistan the railroad can be extended further into China creating a new 'silk road'.

As far as I know China already plans to build a railway line into Afghanistan to exploite the Aynak copper mine south of Kabul.

Moreover after the completion of the rail tunnel under the Bosphorus in Istanbul a direct Iran-China railway can be used (if politics allow) as a non-stop land route for cargo between China and Europe.
(Although at the lake Van railway line is interrupted by a ferry across the lake)

However in the long term these Afghan railway projects could be part of a real new transcontinental cargo silk road competitive with sea transport.

In such case the station of Mazar-e-Sharif can see millions of tons of freight coming from and going to as far destinations as Shanghai or Hamburg.
Such a future would enable Afghanistan to join the world economy.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
October 15, 2010 09:45
Moreover if people live better as a result of the railway (and its economical benefits) they will protected the line themselves against the Taliban or anybody else who want to destroy it.

Railway improves the living standard therefore building them is the best way to fight against the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan.

I can imagine how much we spend for the war. From a part of those amount we would be able to build a complex rail network in Afghanistan. Moreover building railways would create highly needed jobs in the impoverished country.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
October 15, 2010 09:53
I have one more question please if anybody knows the answer give it to me.

Is the newly built track as wide as the Russian or ex-Soviet tracks in Central-Asia?

Does Iran have a different track size?

If yes then which standard will be applied in Afghanistan? One standard to Herat and another one to Mazar-e-Sharif that's OK.

But which will be used to connect them?

What kind of railway standard does China use? (Do they use the 'European' standard?)

Thanks if someone gives me tha answer!
In Response

by: Mick from: Altrincham
October 15, 2010 23:28
@Zoltan - To answer your questions:

I think the new line from Uzebekistan will almost certainly be built to the wider gauge standard in the former Soviet Union countries, namely 1,520/1,524mm.

Iran's railways are built to the international standard gauge of 1,435mm. China also uses this gauge.

As such, I suspect it would be difficult at this stage to speculate on the gauge which a wider Afghan system would adopt. This is the moreso given that India and Pakistan generally use the even wider 1,676mm.

Break of gauge is a problem for any Trans-Asia railway project, whether through Iran to India or via the former Soviet repubics of Central Asia.

Hope this assists - and thanks for your interesting thoughts on the economic background and prospects.
In Response

by: Mick from: Altrincham, UK
October 15, 2010 23:33
PS Having viewed the video, I think I can confirm that the railway is indeed to 1,524/1,520 gauge: the diesel locomotive seen is certainly a former Soviet model so very unlikely to be anything else. Hope this helps.

by: Andrew from: UK
October 15, 2010 21:32
The new railway is effectively an extension of the Uzbek rail network, and so is being built to 1520 mm broad gauge, as is used across the former Soviet Union.

Iran, China, Turkey and most of the Middle East and Europe use 1435 mm (standard) gauge. Meanwhile Pakistan and India use 1676 mm broad gauge.

If an Iran - Mazar i Sharif - Central Asian states line can be completed there could be interesting opportunities for transit freight traffic.

See http://www.andrewgrantham.co.uk/afghanistan for some historical details of Afghan railway projects.
In Response

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
October 16, 2010 16:03
Thank you both for Mick and Andrew!

Your web page was quite interesting.

I didn't know that India/Pakistan use a different gauge.
Does this mean that also Great Britain uses a different gauge than the rest of continental Europe?

I know only that Spain and Portugal use different standard.

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