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Uzbek-Afghan railway to start running in July
Railway between Hairatan and Mazar-i-Sharif is expected to boost economy
By Maksim Yeniseyev
TASHKENT – The long-awaited Hairatan–Mazar-i-Sharif railway, which Uzbekiston Temir Yullari (UTY) Co. finished building in November, is scheduled to start running in July.
Once it begins service, this transport artery will become the only completed long-distance railway in Afghanistan, connecting Hairatan, a town on the Uzbek-Afghan border, to the Mazar-i-Sharif airport. Another international railway, extending westward from Herat, is still incomplete.
Afghanistan had only about 25km of railway until the early 21st century.
“Currently, the railway is capable of transporting a wide range of cargo,” Abror Vokhidov, one of UTY’s chief engineers, said. “The project infrastructure will also enable Afghanistan to carry passenger traffic … in the future.”
The Hairatan–Mazar-i-Sharif railway is 75km long and can carry eight trains in each direction per day, or nearly 9m tonnes of cargo per year.
The Asian Development Bank financed much of the project, lending US $165m (7.8 billion AFA or 281 billion UZS). Afghanistan allocated US $5m (235m AFA or 8.5 billion UZS) from its national budget. Construction took from January to November 2010.
“Tests have now been completed proving the safety of all railway components, including main lines, storage tracks and sidings, as well as electrical equipment and switches,” Vokhidov said.
Although ready to operate, the railway has been idle since February because Afghanistan failed to complete some legal formalities and because some security concerns existed.
“Now the Afghan side says it has ensured full protection and security, and so have we,” Uzbek National Security Council officer Vokhid Shukurov said.
Trade boom expected
“EU countries are pinning great hopes on this railway; we expect it to boost the delivery of cargo, including humanitarian assistance, to this country,” Akmal Ruiziboyev, an official at the German embassy in Tashkent, said.
“This railway will promote Central Asian countries’ economic co-operation with Afghanistan,” economist Ravshan Bagromov said. “Growth in trade is expected as early as year’s end.”
Afghanistan now has two railways – from Herat extending westward (but incomplete), and from Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif, UTY spokesman Rasul Khalikov said.
“We helped build the latter line, and it’s up to Afghanistan now to make it operational. Professional railway personnel need to be trained, and locomotives and cars purchased,” Khalikov said.
The Afghan side plans to start running its own trains by year’s end, he added.
“Afghanistan needs access to Central Asian markets and … regional energy resources,” Uzbek political scientist Yevgeny Khan said. “The (Uzbek) Tashguzar–Baisun–Kumkurgan and Hairatan–Mazar-i-Sharif main lines enable Afghanistan to import resources from Kazakhstan and Russia. These two countries are interested in promoting co-operation (with Afghanistan): Kazakhstan would benefit from that economically, and to Russia it’s a strategically important issue, apart from everything else.”
Some security misgivings
Analysts warn that the launch of an important transport corridor may attract terrorist attention, worsen the regional situation and expose Uzbekistan to a terrorist incursion.
“This aspect of the problem has to be reckoned with too,” Khan said. “For it is not in Uzbekistan's interests to walk away from projects that strengthen its political and economic positions in northern Afghanistan.”
While acknowledging reasons for concern, Shukurov called against giving up the project. “We have everything needed to protect the railway,” he said.
Uzbekistan is already drafting a new project – a railway line from Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat. That line could link to the westbound railway out of Herat, although a challenge exists.
“We would have to solve the economic and infrastructure problem of the difference in railway width – 1,435mm on the line westward from Herat, and 1,520mm on our segment of the railway,” Khalikov said. CIS countries have continued using the wider railway gage that they inherited from the former Soviet Union.
“Afghanistan will have to purchase additional locomotives and cars to make these two branches compatible,” he said. That would be a soluble problem, he added.