The Trans-Afghan Railway project is gaining momentum as Uzbekistan prioritizes access to Pakistani seaports Karachi, Gwadar and Qasim as part of Tashkent’s desire to diversify supply routes and increase Euro-Asian trade. The geopolitical realignment and instability caused by the protracted Russian-Ukrainian conflict has upended global calculations about supply routes, especially in Uzbekistan, meaning that infrastructure projects previously considered unfeasible are now moving forward. One possible beneficiary is the Trans-Afghan Railway project, actively promoted by Uzbekistan, which may now undergo drastic changes to connect Tashkent to major potential export markets, including China and the EU.
Uzbekistan has already built a 75-kilometer railway line connecting Hairatan on the Uzbek-Afghan border with the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan back in 2011. -e-Sharif remains underused. Instead of, most rail freight from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan is currently transported by road near the border at Termez or Hairatan.
The Trans-Afghan Railway project, first proposed by Uzbekistan in December 2018, aims to expand the Afghan railway network from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul and then to Jalalabad province, where the railway will cross the Torkham border and enter Pakistan via Peshawar. . Once in Pakistan, the goods will be unloaded to connect to the Pakistani rail system, and from there, eventually delivered to the Pakistani seaports of Karachi, Gwadar and Qasim.
The railway will have a planned capacity up to 20 million tons of cargo per yearand once operational, it will reduce travel time for goods in transit from Uzbekistan to Pakistan. from 35 days to just 3-5 days. It is planned that the railway line will be 573 km long and will be built with the Russian gauge of 1520 mm, the estimated cost of which will be 4.8 billion dollars. The construction period is about five years.
AT February 2021 a plan was drawn up to build a line between Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Ministry of Investment and Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan said that with this route, by 2025, the volume of trade between India and Pakistan with Afghanistan and the CIS countries could reach $20 billion and $6 billion, respectively.
UN July 19 it was announced that feasibility studies for a proposed rail link had begun in Afghanistan. At the same time, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that Kazakhstan is ready to assist in the construction of the railway with the supply of rolling stock and tracks.
Russia could also play a role in this proposed rail project. For example, in October 2021 Sergey Pavlov, First Deputy General Director of Russian Railways, with Khusnutdin Khosilov, Chairman of the Board of Uzbekistan’s national railway company Uzbekistan Temir Yullari. It was agreed that Russian Railways will help Uzbekistan conduct a feasibility study and develop a digital model of a railway line using the Russian broad gauge.
The proposed rail line could change Uzbekistan’s former status from landlocked to landlocked. This is necessary for Uzbekistan’s economic security and to support trade with more distant non-traditional markets, including those in South Asia, Southeast Asia and North America. However, financial, technical and geographical hurdles remain, the biggest of which is the question of who will finance the proposed rail line. In addition, given the difficult ecological landscape of Afghanistan, the estimated cost could rise substantially.
The first major problem in the implementation of the project is finding funding (about $4.8 billion). Tashkent planned to attract funds from the US International Development Finance Corporation and other financial institutions (the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, etc.). However, no specific commitments have been made so far. Recent feasibility studies are allegedly funded by Uzbekistan, and Pakistan has announced that it will help raise funds to build the line. In addition, Afghanistan is unable to provide any funding as its assets remain frozen.
At the same time, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has made it even more difficult to get a line of credit from financial institutions. The Taliban are struggling to gain legitimacy in Afghanistan and are mired in ethnic clashes across the country. And while the Taliban-controlled government has offered security guarantees for the rail line, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has been fighting the Taliban since around 2015, swore harass anyone who works on the Trans-Afghan railway line. Like Raffaello Pantucci illustrated, “In Afghanistan, although the Taliban have repeatedly said they will not allow their territory to be used for terrorist plots against others, they have done little to stop it.” Managing a railway line is a separate issue, and if the story serves as a preview, then it is certainly not an easy task.
Another barrier is related to topographical and seasonal restrictions. In Afghanistan, developers have to deal with rugged mountainous terrain, deep valleys, and a relatively dry climate with limited rainfall. These physical limitations are exacerbated by the harsh environmental conditions that manufacturers will have to adapt to during construction.
For example, part of the railway line is planned to pass through the Salang pass in the Hindu Kush mountain region at an altitude of 3500 meters. This would make it one of the highest railway lines in the world. The Salang Pass is subject to heavy snowfalls and/or avalanches during the winter season, which can cause the railway to be shut down for extended periods. To run a rail line through it, manufacturers would need to build another tunnel under the mountain. This will increase costs and may complicate, delay or discourage transport activities and investment. Topography and weather issues can place restrictions on supporting infrastructure and increase time and distance to markets.
Other operational issues, such as compensation payments to private landowners along the proposed rail line, ensuring the reliability of power lines in Afghanistan, and the need to train local labor to both build and maintain the rail line, will have associated costs.
Another hurdle for this project is the problem with the sensors. The railway line in Afghanistan will be built with Russia’s 1520 mm broad gauge so that it can be easily connected to railways from Uzbekistan, which also use this broad gauge. However, a change in gauge from 1520 mm to 1676 mm railway gauge on the Afghan-Pakistan border is required. Thus, trains have to stand at the border for several hours while railway workers change gauges. This increases the delay and cost of the process.
Due to its geographical position, Uzbekistan is twice landlocked. Because seaports are gateways to the outside, Uzbekistan needs special ties to coastal areas to be able to trade with countries outside of Central Asia. Without such linkages, the country’s economic potential is seen as very limited due to the loss of competitiveness due to being landlocked. Thus, the creation of cargo corridors linking Uzbekistan with ports should be a priority. Priority is given to Pakistani seaports as Uzbekistan sees Pakistan as a more stable partner than its alternatives, Iran and Turkmenistan. Once the current economic sanctions on Iran end, there may be prospects for Uzbekistan to expand its use of the seaport of Bandar Abbas and possibly Chabahar. En route through Turkmenistan, cargo is subject to additional border controls and transit fees, which adds to delays and costs.
Thus, connected Uzbekistan can provide many opportunities that were not there before. While connectivity is not a panacea and does come with risks, it also provides Uzbekistan with an opportunity to improve its economy and become the master of its future.