Project: North South Transnational Corridor
Cost: $1.4 billion
Construction period: 2007-2012
Central Asian nations have been slow to establish rail links with their neighbors to the south for numerous reasons. During the era when the Central Asian nations were part of the Soviet Union, all their rail lines headed north to Russia, their major trading partner.
Of the five Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan occupies an especially strategic position. Geographically, it lies between China to the east and Russia to the north and west; it also provides a north-south corridor between Europe and the Middle East and southern Asia. Politically, Kazakhstan has maintained good relations with its larger neighbors—Russia, China and Iran—which has involved a skillful balancing act.
The North South Transnational Corridor project aims to be the most direct link for freight shipments from Russia or Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. It will run from the rail junction of Usan in western Kazakhstan in a southerly direction, crossing the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan and linking up with an existing rail line in northern Iran. The line will run for 137 kilometers in Kazakhstan, 470 km in Turkmenistan and 70 km in Iran.
An agreement to build the line was signed by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran in 2007. Turkmenistan began construction at Bereket station almost immediately. By July 2010, about 300 km of the line in Turkmenistan was completed; the work was performed by Iranian contractors. Turkmenistan’s effort was primarily financed by the Asian Development Bank. But Kazakhstan has delayed its start, citing financial reasons.
According to the Far News Agency in Iran, the Iranian minister of roads and urban development, Ali Nikzad, announced that the portion of the corridor within Turkmenistan that is being built by Iranian contractors will be completed by the end of 2011. The short link inside Iran, which is being built by the Iranian contractor Pars Enerzhi, will be completed by March 2012.
Once it is completed, the railway is expected to initially transport cotton from Turkmenistan, as well as agricultural products and oil from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, to ports in Iran’s Persian Gulf for export to world markets. The new line will cut 600 km from the current route for shipped cargo from the Central Asian nations to Persian Gulf nations, putting the markets of Iran and the Gulf Arab states within cost-effective reach of, for example, Kazakh food producers.
Ultimately, the railway could shorten by 1,000 km the distance for shipping Chinese cargo to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway by routing it over the new rail link and existing lines through Iran and Turkey.