Officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have agreed the route for the proposed Trans-Afghanistan Railway, which is being planned as joint initiative between the three countries to promote regional connectivity and provide Central Asia with access to Pakistan’s seaports.
The protocol was signed at a trilateral meeting on July 18, convened by Pakistan’s Ministry of Railways in Islamabad. This brought together railway officials from the three countries with Pakistan’s railway and finance ministers and the Taliban and Uzbek ambassadors.
Pakistan’s Minister of Railways Khawaja Saad Rafique said it was ‘a historic day for regional connectivity’, with the railway to facilitate regional, transit and bilateral trade and provide ‘better people-to-people connections to the entire region’.
Officials agreed that a feasibility study would be conducted with the accuracy, quality and speed needed to enable practical works to start soon.
A one-year plan for the project was approved, with international consulting firms to be asked to prepare information to share with financial institutions. This could be a stumbling block, owing to the lack of international recognition of the Taliban government which took control of Afghanistan in 2021.
The proposed line would start at Mazar-i-Sharif, terminus of the existing 1 520 mm gauge line from Termez in Uzbekistan, and run across Afghanistan to Logar province and the Kharlachi border crossing with Pakistan; this has been selected rather than the Khyber Pass border crossing which has long-featured in proposals for cross-border railways.
According to preliminary estimates, the line would require more than 750 km of 1 520 mm gauge main line and station tracks. The project is costed at more than US$5bn and construction is expected to take five years.
The Afghan embassy in Islamabad said the railway project ‘holds immense promise for fostering economic growth and development in the region’, and with the signing of the agreement ‘we embark on the meticulous phases of planning, resource allocation and project implementation, reaffirming our joint dedication to establishing robust regional connectivity’.
Afghanistan Railway Authority Chairman Bakht-u-Rehman Sharafat said the project would ‘materialise the dream which I dreamed three years before’, as the railway would ‘connect the region with steel bonds’.
Meanwhile, freight services on the 1 435 mm gauge railway from Khaf in Iran to Rozanak in Afghanistan’s Herat province were officially launched with a ceremony on July 11.
The line had been inaugurated in December 2020, but required repairs after being damaged during the Taliban takeover. AfRA has bought a self-powered railcar to carry personnel and equipment to support the works.
Iranian officials signed an agreement to co-operate with plans to extend the line onwards towards the city of Herat, saying it could form part of a revived Silk Road.
Herat’s Taliban Governor Maulana Noor Ahmad Islam Jar said the railway would allow trains to reach Afghanistan from the borders of Europe. It would also provide a route to India via the Iranian port of Chabahar, where a rail connection is under construction for opening in 2024.