The silk railway : How to link Europe with East Asia?

Silk Railway : Centuries ago the Orient supplied Europe with the wondrous luxuries it craved – jewels, silk, jade, spices – sending its produce along the dusty caravan route known as the Silk Road.

Today, China has become the world’s workshop and Europe has an insatiable appetite for its exports. Most now arrive on giant container ships. But as ports become clogged and delivery times critical, China is again looking to the old land routes across Asia. But the new Silk Road China is planning will be made of steel.

At both ends of the route, rail systems are being developed and modernised apace. In Europe, new high-speed corridors are spreading across the continent.

In China, billions are being spent each year on a new network of 42 high-speed lines criss-crossing the country and opening up distant provinces. The problem, however, lies in the vast distance between East and West. Where are Asia’s missing links? What is the best direct rail route from Beijing to London? And who will pay for this new Iron Silk Road?

A new Trans-Asia integrated freight railway has been on the drawing board for 40 years, the brainchild of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia. The commission has identified four possible routes: a northern corridor, linking Europe and the Pacific via Germany, Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China; a southern corridor from Europe to southeast Asia, via Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar and Thailand; a southeast Asian network, consisting mainly of a link between Singapore and Kunming; and a north-south corridor from Helsinki through Russia to the Caspian, then splitting into three routes – to western Iran via Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea to Iran, and an eastern route via Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All three would converge on Tehran and go on south to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

Of the four, the northern route already exists. It is based largely on the Trans-Siberian railway.

The Trans-Siberian is capable of transporting 100 million tonnes of freight a year, but is almost saturated.

It is the central corridor, via Kazakhstan and Turkey, which is the most promising. This route, roughly following the old Silk Road, was long hampered by two missing links: between former Soviet Central Asia and Iran, and across the Bosphorus from Asiatic Turkey into Europe. But the past decade has seen rapid progress. Turkey has long had a well-developed network of railways of the same standard gauge as western Europe. But now, with a booming economy and ambitions to play a bigger role in the Middle East and Central Asia, Turkey is tackling two natural barriers: Lake Van and the Bosphorus.

A new rail ferry has been opened across Lake Van. The Bosphorus is a bigger obstacle. It is fast-flowing and immensely deep. Two road bridges are already saturated, and a third, now planned, has no provision for rail. Instead, Turkey is building a 13.3-kilometre rail tunnel. It will carry freight and high-speed trains as well as heavy commuter traffic into Istanbul from the Asian side. The tunnel’s strategic importance is immense: it will be the first and only way of reaching Europe from Asia without passing through Russia.

China has already begun its own push west. It has a crossing point over the Alataw Pass in northwest Xinjiang into Dostyk, in Kazakhstan, and in 2009 completed a second link across the border into Khorgos. There is already a line running from Almaty, in Kazahkstan, through Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, to Tejen, in Turkmenistan, and ending at Turkmenbashi, a port on the Caspian Sea. In 1996, a branch was built south across the border into Iran. This was the missing link. In theory, a train from China can now enter Iran and cross south to the Gulf port of Bandar Abbas. Or it can turn west through the Caucasus or across to the Turkish border.

Three big obstacles are still holding up the completion of a Trans-Asian network, however: the different rail gauges; the need for agreed transit permits; and unstable politics in central Asia and Iran.

The gauge question was once formidable. The entire Soviet system uses a 1,520mm gauge. Turkey, Iran, China and Europe use standard gauge – 1,435mm. Railways in India and Pakistan use Indian broad gauge – 1,676mm. And most of Southeast Asia is metre gauge.

All passenger trains running from Russia to Berlin still have to be lifted up and have all the wheels changed. But for freight, almost all now containerised, it would be cheaper when crossing Asia simply to lift the containers off one broad-gauge train on to flatcars of a standard-gauge train.

There must also be agreement on standardized voltage, couplings, brakes, loading gauges and signalling systems.

More difficult to coordinate is bureaucracy. A train travelling through six or seven railway administrations needs agreed paths, customs clearances and permits. Who would coordinate the flow of international freight trains is unclear, and the chances of delay and opportunities to demand bribes are immense.

Perhaps the most difficult issue, though, is politics. Iran is a key link in any route to Turkey but is far from stable. Washington is unlikely to approve any major international investment in the Iranian rail system if this involves Western help and technology. Ankara, too, may find it increasingly difficult to negotiate with Tehran, even on technical matters.

Central Asia, too, is hardly welcoming to outside investment. Its rail systems are still run in close cooperation with Moscow, and the Russians are hostile to anything – such as a switch of gauge to a European standard – that would reduce Russian influence in its former republics. Corruption in these countries is rife, and there have been mysterious explosions and incidents that appear intended to sabotage plans for through routes.

One alternative is to build a line through western Afghanistan. A proposed 392-kilometre route would go from Kashgar in China to Iran via Herat, passing through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

For more than a century, plans have been around to lay rails through Afghanistan. The geography of this mountainous country is one obvious barrier, but experts say that, as long as the Hindu Kush range can be skirted, the engineering challenges are surmountable – at a cost. The big problem is confidence in the country’s stability.

Similarly, plans for a cross-Caucasus line via Georgia into eastern Turkey are bedevilled by the enmity between Armenia and Azerbaijan and by the long closure of Armenia’s land border with Turkey.

All these schemes depend on vast investments, and most countries are looking to China for finance. The Chinese have been lavish in their promises to help, and whenever a minister visits the region, he tends to announce a new Chinese-sponsored rail project. The record is less impressive. China, for example, has made much of a so-called New Eurasian Land Bridge from Lianyungang in Jiangsu province, through Kazakhstan, to Rotterdam – a distance of 11,870 kilometres. But the route is still unclear, and so far only a few special trains have been sent on circuitous journeys to test the options.

Perhaps, in the end, like the old caravan routes, there will be a multiplicity of options, all broadly connecting the East and the West. Until the politics and the economies of the region can be better aligned, however, piecemeal progress is all that can be expected.

Michael Binyon is a former diplomatic editor of The Times.

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Source : NationMultiMedia

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