Rail Development
In Central Asia


The collapse of the Soviet Union proved to be the catalyst for a new era of
independence for the countries of Central Asia. Whilst the political fall-out has naturally received prominence, a no less important aspect – that of provision for the developing change in international transport demand – has received relatively little publicity, but is nevertheless steadily taking place. Under Soviet domination transport corridors, both road and rail, were developed into Russia only, to satisfy Soviet demand for raw materials and to strengthen Soviet domination of the region: communication with bordering countries was prevented or at least discouraged. And to further discourage any foreign incursion, all USSR rail lines were built to a different rail gauge – 5’ compared to the majority of European systems and China which use 4’8 ½ rail gauge. 

Under the communists each country’s industrial output and raw materials were directed into Russia and at prices centrally dictated. Independence therefore provided the opportunity to access world markets and to exploit the vast reserves of raw materials in these mountainous regions at world market prices. The five Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan , Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were all land-locked and therefore had been heavily dependent upon the USSR.

The rail situation in each country at the end of Soviet domination was as follows.

Kazakhstan, the largest country and bigger than the whole of Western Europe, is extremely rich in natural resources. This country had a number of north-south routes leading from the Trans-Siberian Railway but very little in the way of easteast rail communication and no link into China. Turkmenistan had the west-east Trans-Caspian route built by Russia for strategic reasons. This connected from the trans-Caspian ferry route from Baku to Krasnoyodsk (now renamed Turkmanbashi). This again then led north through Uzbekistan along the Golden Road (Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent) to join the Trans-Siberian line on a route known as the Turk-Sib line.

Uzbekistan had a quite extensive but limited system – the above west-east
line along the ‘Golden Road ‘ to Samarkand but then mainly south-north routes into the USSR.

Tajikistan had only five unconnected penetrating lines from the Uzbek system and even rail travel between the two major cities was impossible without running via Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyzstan again had only short penetrating lines from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, all leading through into Russia.

Afghanistan (never part of the USSR) had no railway at all (until the first train ran in 2012) – such development having been banned by the king when he saw the use made of the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Caspian routes in promoting the Russo-Japanese war!

It will seen from the above that there was a general lack of east west routes (apart from the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Caspian) and none between Asia and China – a country hungry for raw materials and with rapidly developing trade with all points of the globe.

Central Asian Transport Priorities

There are two clear priorities to enable the Central Asian countries to develop and establish financial independence. The first is access to World Markets via deep-sea shipping – meaning access to the Persian Gulf ports to reach the World market. The second is the establishment of adequate links with China for trade in both directions and to stimulate trans-Asian land-bridge traffic by rail – a transport mode that would never be as cheap as ship but could halve transit times for high value goods, shorten supply chains and slash container turn-round times.

Rail Links with China

The first single track rail link was opened in 1994 between China and Kazakhstan via Druzba. This was rapidly double-tracked and a duplicate route between Zhetigen and Korgas opened in 2013. Plans are already now being developed for a third route – a very expensive link via the Pass of Torugart between Kashgar and Uzbekistan. A fourth route is under conceptual study, running through Tajikistan and Afghanistan to Iran and Turkey. In conjunction with the recently opened Marmaray rail tunnel under the Bosphorus, this could avoid the current need for transhipment en route, as all routes passing through ex Soviet territories need to change rail gauge at entry and exit borders to the Soviet 5’ rail gauge system, leading to delay and cost enhancement for the rail system.

The Way Forward

The Asian Development Bank, based in the Philippines at Manila, is co-ordinating regional transport investment in Central Asia under an organisation called CAREC (Central Asian Regional Economic Co-operation) along six corridors with a view to improving rail and road links and stimulating economic development. Finance is of course a key issue. However the existence of large deposits of raw mining material is anticipated to attract investment for commodities for which economic transport is a prime requirement, and these countries are beginning to realise the possible benefits from ‘land-bridge’ transit traffic revenue as a means of improving their financial base.

by David Brice

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