The Trans-Afghan railway project is gathering momentum as Uzbekistan prioritizes access to Pakistan’s seaports of Karachi, Gwadar, and Qasim, as part of Tashkent’s bid to diversify its supply routes and increase volumes of Euro-Asian trade. The geopolitical realignment and instability caused by the prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict have overturned global calculations about supply routes, especially in Uzbekistan, meaning infrastructure projects previously thought unfeasible are now making progress. One possible beneficiary is the Trans-Afghan Railway project, strongly pushed by Uzbekistan, which could now undergo a radical change to connect Tashkent with major potential export markets, including China and the EU.
Uzbekistan had already built a 75-kilometer rail link connecting Hairatan on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan back in 2011. However, due to high charges and operational issues, the section from Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif remains underutilized. Instead, most rail freight from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan is currently transferred to road transport near the border at Termez or Hairatan.
The Trans-Afghan railway project, first proposed in December 2018 by Uzbekistan, aims at extending the Afghan rail network from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul and then to Nangarhar province, where the railway would cross the Torkham border and run into Pakistan via Peshawar. Once in Pakistan, goods will be offloaded to connect with the Pakistan rail system and from there will eventually travel down to the Pakistani seaports of Karachi, Gwadar, and Qasim.
The railway would have a planned capacity of up to 20 million tons of cargo per annum, and once operational it would slice the travel time for goods transiting from Uzbekistan to Pakistan from 35 days to just 3 to 5 days. The railway line is planned to be 573 km and will be built with a 1,520 mm Russian gauge at an estimated cost of $4.8 billion. The time frame for the construction is approximately five years.
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In February 2021 the plan for construction of the line was drawn up between Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Uzbek Ministry of Investment and Foreign Affairs reported that with this route in place, by 2025 the volume of trade of India and Pakistan with Afghanistan and the CIS countries could reach $20 billion and $6 billion, respectively.
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On July 19 it was announced that feasibility studies in Afghanistan along the proposed rail link have begun. At the same time, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that Kazakhstan is ready to assist with the construction of the railway project with the supply of rolling stock and tracks.
Russia also has a role to play in this proposed railway project. For example, in October 2021, the first deputy general director of Russian Railways, Sergey Pavlov, met with Khusnutdin Khosilov, the chairman of Uzbekistan’s national railway company, O‘zbekiston Temir Yo‘llari. It was agreed that Russian Railways will help Uzbekistan conduct the feasibility study and develop a digital model of the railway line using the Russian broad gauge.
The proposed rail line has the potential to shift Uzbekistan’s old status of “landlocked” to “land-linked.” This is needed for Uzbekistan’s economic security and to support trade with more distant nontraditional markets including in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and North America. However, financial, technical, and geographical obstacles remain, the biggest being the question of who will finance the proposed railway line. Also, given Afghanistan’s complicated environmental terrain, the projected cost could rise substantially.
The first major problem in the implementation of the project is the search for financing (about $4.8 billion). Tashkent planned to attract funds from the U.S. 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 concrete commitments have been made so far. The recent feasibility studies are allegedly being financed by Uzbekistan, and Pakistan announced that it would help raise funds for the construction of the line. Additionally, Afghanistan is in no position to provide any financing as its assets remain frozen.
At the same time, the worsening security situation in Afghanistan has made it even more difficult to secure a credit line with financial institutions. The Taliban have been 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 railway line, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has been fighting the Taliban since around 2015, vowed to target anyone working on the Trans-Afghan railway line. As Raffaello Pantucci illustrated, “in Afghanistan, while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it will not let its territory be used to plot terrorism against others, it has done little to stop it.” Administering the railway line is another question in itself, and if history serves as a preview, it would certainly not be a straightforward task.
Another barrier involves topographical and seasonal constraints. In Afghanistan, developers must contend with rugged, mountainous terrain, deep valleys, and a relatively dry climate with limited rainfall. These physical constraints are compounded by the harsh environmental conditions that manufacturers would have to navigate and adapt to during construction.
For instance, a part of the railway line is planned to run through the Salang Pass in the mountainous region of the Hindu Kush at an altitude of 3,500 meters. This would make it one of the highest railway lines in the world. The Salang Pass is prone to heavy snowfall and/or avalanches during the winter season, which could disable the railway for extended periods. To construct a railway line through this, manufacturers would need to build another tunnel under the mountain. This would add to the costs and could complicate, postpone, or prevent transport activities and investment. Issues of topography and weather conditions can place constraints on supporting infrastructure, and increase time and distance to markets.
However, in January the Afghan side approved the rail route through Baghlan and Bamiyan, seemingly an attempt to avoid the Salang Pass and its complications. This alternative Baghlan-Bamiyan route across the mountains is often used when the Salang Pass is temporarily closed for repairs. It may add to the journey time, but it can be a game changer for the rail route.
Other operational issues, such as indemnity payments to private landholders along the proposed railway line, ensuring the reliability of transmission routes in Afghanistan, and the need to train a local workforce both for the creation and maintenance of this railway line will have associated costs.
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Another barrier to this project is the gauge issue. The railway line in Afghanistan will be built with the Russian broad 1,520 mm gauge so it can easily connect with railways from Uzbekistan which also uses this broad gauge. However, a change of gauge is required from 1,520 mm to 1,676 mm rail track at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Thus the trains must stop for several hours at the border while railway technicians change their wheel tracks. This adds to the delay and cost of the process.
By virtue of its geography, Uzbekistan is doubly landlocked. Since seaports are the gateways to the outside, Uzbekistan requires specific connections to coastal areas to allow it to trade with countries outside Central Asia. Without such links, the economic potential of the country is seen as very limited due to the loss of competitiveness arising from being landlocked. Thus, the creation of freight corridors connecting Uzbekistan with ports should be a priority. Pakistani seaports have been given priority because Uzbekistan sees Pakistan as a more stable partner than its alternatives, Iran and Turkmenistan. Once the present economic sanctions on Iran come to an end, there could be prospects for Uzbekistan to expand its use of the Bandar Abbas seaport and potentially Chabahar. On the route via Turkmenistan, cargo is subject to additional border inspections and transit tariffs, which adds to delays and costs.
Thus, a connected Uzbekistan has the potential to bring many opportunities that were not available before. While connectivity is not a panacea and indeed carries risks, it also carries the potential for Uzbekistan to improve its economy and become a master of its own future.