Trans-Afghan rail project gains momentum as Uzbekistan prioritizes access to Pakistani seaports from Karachi, Gwadar and Qasim, as part of Tashkent’s bid to diversify its supply routes and increase Eurasian trade volumes. Geopolitical realignment and instability caused by the protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine have overturned global calculations on supply routes, especially in Uzbekistan, meaning infrastructure projects previously thought unfeasible are now making progress. One potential beneficiary is the Trans-Afghan Railway project, strongly pushed by Uzbekistan, which could now undergo a sea change to connect Tashkent with major potential export markets, including China and the EU.
Uzbekistan had already built a 75-kilometre rail link connecting Hairatan on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border with the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan in 2011. However, due to high tariffs and operational problems, 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 rail project, first proposed in December 2018 by Uzbekistan, aims to extend the Afghan rail network from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul and on to Jalalabad province, where the rail would cross the Torkham border and reach to Pakistan via Peshawar. . Once in Pakistan, the goods will be offloaded to connect with Pakistan’s rail system and from there will eventually travel 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 yearand once operational, it will reduce the travel time for goods in transit from Uzbekistan to Pakistan from 35 days to only 3 to 5 days. The rail line is planned to be 573 km long and will be built to 1,520 mm Russian gauge at an estimated cost of $4.8 billion. The term for construction is approximately five years.
In february 2021 the plan for the construction of the line between Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan was drawn up. The Ministry of Investment and Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan reported that with this route in place, by 2025 the trade volume of India and Pakistan with Afghanistan and the CIS countries could reach $20 billion and $6 billion, respectively.
In July 19 it was announced that feasibility studies have begun in Afghanistan along the proposed rail link. At the same time, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev Announced that Kazakhstan is ready to help in the construction of the railway project with the supply of rolling stock and tracks.
Russia also has a role to play in this proposed rail project. for example in October 2021, the first deputy general director of Russian Railways, Sergey Pavlov, met with Khusnutdin Khosilov, president of the national railway company of Uzbekistan, O’zbekiston Temir Yo’llari. It was agreed that Russian Railways will help Uzbekistan to carry out the feasibility study and develop a digital model of the railway line using the Russian gauge.
The proposed railway line has the potential to change Uzbekistan’s former status from “landlocked” to “land-connected”. This is necessary for Uzbekistan’s economic security and to support trade with more distant non-traditional markets, including South Asia, Southeast Asia and North America. However, financial, technical and geographic hurdles remain, the biggest being the question of who will finance the proposed rail line. Furthermore, given Afghanistan’s difficult environmental terrain, the projected cost could increase substantially.
The first big problem in the implementation of the project is the search for financing (around $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 concrete commitments have been made so far. The recent feasibility studies are reportedly being financed by Uzbekistan, and Pakistan announced that it would help raise funds for the construction of the line. Furthermore, Afghanistan is not in a 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 line of credit 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 rail line, the Islamic State’s (ISKP) province of Khorasan, which has been fighting the Taliban since around 2015, swore to attack anyone who works on the trans-Afghan rail line. As Raffaello Pantucci illustrated, “In Afghanistan, although the Taliban have repeatedly declared that they will not allow their territory to be used to plot terrorism against others, they have done little to stop it.” Managing the railway is another matter in itself, and if history is any foretaste, it certainly wouldn’t be an easy task.
Another barrier involves topographical and seasonal restrictions. In Afghanistan, developers must contend with rugged, mountainous terrain, deep valleys, and a relatively dry climate with limited rainfall. These physical limitations are compounded by the harsh environmental conditions that manufacturers would have to navigate and adapt to during construction.
For example, part of the railway is planned to pass through the Salang Pass in the Hindu Kush mountain region 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 render the railway unusable for long periods. To build a railway through this, the manufacturers would have to build another tunnel under the mountain. This would increase costs and could complicate, postpone or prevent transportation activities and investment. Topography and weather conditions can impose restrictions on supporting infrastructure and increase time and distance to markets.
Other operational issues, such as compensation payments to private owners along the proposed rail line, ensuring the reliability of transmission routes in Afghanistan, and the need to train a local workforce for both creation and maintenance of this railway line will have associated costs.
Another barrier to this project is the gauge issue. The railway line in Afghanistan will be built with the Russian gauge of 1,520 mm so that it can easily connect with the railways of Uzbekistan, which also use this gauge. However, a track gauge change from 1,520mm to 1,676mm is required at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Therefore, the trains must stop for several hours at the border while the railway technicians change the wheel tracks. This adds to the delay and cost of the process.
By virtue of its geography, Uzbekistan has a dual outlet to the sea. Since seaports are the gateways to the outside world, Uzbekistan requires specific connections with coastal areas to allow it to trade with countries outside of Central Asia. Without such links, the country’s economic potential is severely limited due to the loss of competitiveness resulting from the lack of access to the sea. Therefore, the creation of cargo corridors connecting Uzbekistan with the ports should be a priority. Pakistani ports have been prioritized because Uzbekistan sees Pakistan as a more stable partner than its alternatives, Iran and Turkmenistan. Once the current economic sanctions against Iran end, there could be prospects for Uzbekistan to expand its use of the Bandar Abbas seaport and potentially Chabahar. En route through Turkmenistan, cargo is subject to additional border inspections and transit fees, adding to delays and costs.
Therefore, a connected Uzbekistan has the potential to provide many opportunities that were previously unavailable. While connectivity is not a panacea, and indeed carries risks, it also carries the potential for Uzbekistan to improve its economy and become master of its own future.