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Uzbekistan to build Afghan railway

20 March 2013

http://centralasiaonline.com of 3/20/2013 - Uzbekistan envisions a transportation project that could have big payoffs for it and its neighbour Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan Railways (Uzbekiston Temir Yullari or UTY) is conducting feasibility studies regarding plans to build an extension of the existing 75km Hairatan−Mazar-i-Sharif railway in Afghanistan. The project, slated to be done between 2013 and 2015, would boost economic ties with Afghanistan, analysts say.

In January, the company announced plans for a US $450m (914 billion UZS) 230km-long track extension that would connect Sher Khan Bandar - a Tajik-Afghan border checkpoint on the Panj River - with the existing track in Mazar-i-Sharif. From there, the track would go to Herat, where it would link to a still-incomplete track that should one day lead to the country's western border, UTY planning centre chief Navruz Erkinov told Central Asia Online.

The project would be developed and financed under the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (CAREC) Programme and would pass through the Afghan cities of Kunduz, Kholm and Naibabad, he said.

Northern Afghanistan's 1st railway

"Uzbekistan has always helped, and will continue helping Afghanistan in restoring its economy," Erkinov said. "Transport projects are of particular importance for the two countries."

Uzbek workers helped restore the Mazar-i-Sharif−Kabul highway and restored 10 bridges on that route. In 2010, Uzbekistan started building the Hairatan−Mazar-i-Sharif railway - the first ever in northern Afghanistan - with the first trains running in late 2011.

"The most ambitious and strategically important project in the history of our bilateral relations, the Hairatan−Mazar-i-Sharif railway, has taken on the burden of freight transport on a vital route," Erkinov said. Once put into operation, the extended railway would become the "northern railway corridor," securing the uninterrupted transportation of Uzbek, Tajik, Afghan and international cargo across Afghan territory.

Track will stimulate economy

Such a corridor would be of great benefit to Afghanistan and surrounding countries, analysts agree.

"The economic and strategic expediency of such a railway has long been evident," Uzbek political scientist Valery Khan said. "It will open up more opportunities for Afghanistan to develop economically, logistically and otherwise, including the promotion of the country's regional ties."

"Railway construction should change Afghanistan considerably by boosting its imports, exports and industry," he added. "Transport network expansion will stimulate Afghan business, and Afghan goods will appear in the neighbouring countries' markets."

Logistical challenges

Those advantages notwithstanding, Afghanistan would have to overcome some technical hurdles, UTY engineer Pavel Sychev told Central Asia Online.

"Apart from building up its rolling stock and training the railway staff, Afghanistan will have to solve the problem of the difference in railway gauge," he said. "The situation is fairly complex, because direct train transit is impeded by the different track widths used by the neighbouring countries."

Pakistan's railway gauge (1,676mm), for example, is wider than that of the Central Asian countries, he said, adding that the new railway, even in Afghanistan, will have standard Uzbek gauge of 1,524mm throughout for the sake of consistency and operational simplicity. "Switching from one track width to another would require building special switch stations," he said.

Once officials solve all their logistical problems, their efforts should pay off, Dmitry Verkhoturov, an analyst with the Centre for the Study of Modern Afghanistan, told Central Asia Online.

"There isn't a single country around Afghanistan that would not benefit from the development of Afghan domestic railways," he said. "The prospects are great: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan will get the shortest access to the sea, and transit of ... Pakistani goods to Europe will be enabled."

Erkinov agreed, saying that UTY already is seeking more projects, such as a potential Kunduz-Kabul-Jalalabad railway.