A New Orient Express
Though not quite as glamourous as the original “orient express,” the South Caucasus are abuzz with talk of renewed railway lines. Image: Roberto Sorin/Shutterstock
On June 27, 2021, Azerbaijani train spotters watched as a freight train chugged through the outskirts of Baku, pulling 32 neat blue container units. The scene was hardly glamorous, and the freight was a banal consignment of paper products. However, what made the train’s arrival historic, was that this was ‘the first container block-train via the INSTC from Finland to India.’
Using rail can be a way to help the environment and is a logistics boon, saving time on long-distance shipping. Over the past decade, many regional rail projects have been announced. One of these is the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), linking Scandinavia to the sub-continent avoiding the Suez Canal. The 7200km route goes via Russia and Azerbaijan to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where the containers are loaded onto ships bound for the gigantic Indian port of Nhava Sheva near Mumbai. Theoretically, the INSTC is set to reduce the typical Helsinki-India transit time from 40 days to two weeks, but much depends on the smooth operation of border formalities. June 27’s train was a test run to see if reality matches the schedule. Journey times should improve yet further when the last missing section of the rail route is completed between the Iranian cities of Astara (directly south across the Azerbaijani border) and Rasht. That’s a stretch of line over which agreements are repeatedly announced but whose physical construction remains as yet largely notional.
Other Major Rail Projects
Other major regional rail projects include the newly opened Iran-Afghanistan line and the much-heralded Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway linking Istanbul to the Caspian. Originally slated for completion in 2010 but only opened in 2017, the latter carried its first China-Europe container train in 2019, spurring comparisons with the ancient Silk Route. The latest of these regional plans is the hope to re-connect the long-defunct Araz River line that once linked Moscow to Tabriz via Baku, and southern Armenia and Azerbaijan’s disconnected exclave of Nakhchivan. In the early 1990s, that route became untenable as the Horodiz-Ordubad section crossed and re-crossed the closed Armenia-Azerbaijan borders and the war zone of the occupied territories. In late 2020, the 2nd Karabakh War resulted in the de-occupation of those territories. The November 10 ceasefire agreement included provision for a ‘Nakhchivan corridor’ allowing the re-establishment of cross-border transport links along the Araz River’s north banks. This corridor might even be linked to Turkey in the future. However, quite apart from the physical task of rebuilding the Horadiz-Ordubad railway – whose tracks were mostly pulled up over the last three decades – the political details will be sensitive.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have yet to agree on the terms for how transit corridors would be organized, and the idea of a new railway directly linking Azerbaijan to Turkey potentially threatens transit revenues for Georgia. A multilateral study conducted back in 2014 suggested that rehabilitation of the line, including a link to Turkey via existing lines in northern Armenia, would become profitable within about 13 years. While costs will have risen since, it still seems apparent that the railway’s reconstruction would bring significant economic benefits to Armenia, Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan’s de-occupied territories. That report assumes a route via the half-forgotten village of Yeraskh, once an infamous flashpoint at the start of the first Karabakh war, and reopening the Turkey-Armenia frontier west of Gyumri. Alternative Turkish plans, however, propose short-cutting directly from Nakhchivan to Kars via Iğdır (Turkey) on a line skirting the lower slopes of Ağrı Dağı (Mt Ararat) and avoiding northern Armenia altogether. Whatever the eventual decision on westerly connections, Azerbaijan isn’t waiting to get the ball rolling – a ceremony signalling the start of reconstruction of the eastern section (from Horadiz to Aghbend) has already taken place.