On track at last
New Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway expected to double Turkey’s annual railway freight
1 When did this project start?
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway Project Agreement was signed in Tbilisi in February 2007 between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was announced at the signing ceremony that the construction of the project would begin in June 2017 and be completed within two years. However, the project took eight years longer than planned. It was reported that the project had experienced some legal and financing problems.
2 What did the project achieve?
The line, which starts from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, goes all the way to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. It separates to the west 23 kilometers south of Tbilisi and reaches Ahlkelek. The line goes southbound from there, ending in Kars. The Baku-Tbilisi part of the line was used actively before the project began. This 160-kilometer section between Marabda (Tbilisi) and Ahlkelek was built in 1986. However, it needed updating as it had remained idle for a long time. Finally, the 101-kilometer section between Ahlkelek and Kars was built from scratch.
3 How were the technical differences between the countries eliminated?
Georgia and Azerbaijan use wide-rail gauge (1,520 millimeters) so the Baku-Tbilisi-Ahlkelek section of the project is has the same rail gauge. But Turkey uses standard rail gauge (1,435 millimeters) and the section from Kars to Ahlkelek was built with this gauge. There are two methods to ensure compatibility between different rail systems. The first solution is to transfer loads from wagon to wagon in Ahlkelek. Container loads are expected to be transported in this way. The second solution is to continue to Turkey by changing the axis of Azeri wagons in Ahlkelek. However, wider Azeri wagons may not be accepted beyond Kars. In this case, Kars could become a center where cargo is stored and transferred.
4 Will passenger trains run on these lines?
Azerbaijani Railways bought 30 passenger wagons from Stadler for use on this line and wagons are capable of moving on two different rails gauges. Thus, uninterrupted direct passenger transportation from Baku to Istanbul will be possible. It is hoped it will take only one day for the trains to travel between Baku and Istanbul.
5 Will there now be an uninterrupted line from China to Europe?
It is a common assertion that uninterrupted railway transportation from China to Europe will be achieved through Istanbul’s Marmaray and new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line. This is true if the rail gauge difference and ferry connections on the Caspian are not counted as an interruption. However, if these stages are not counted as an interruption, an uninterrupted China-Europe connection was already provided through Iran and the Tekirdag-Derince ferry before the project.
6 What is the establishment of the line aiming to achieve?
The lines will have the capacity to carry 1 million passengers and 6.5 million tons of cargo. The line, when built to a double line, aims to bring that capacity to 3 million passengers and 17 million tons of cargo by 2034. Another aim is for the line to be an alternative to China-Europe interstate transportation, which is still entirely made over Russia. Through the new route, the travel time will be reduced to 15 days and shortened by 7,000 kilometers.
7 What are Turkey’s economic expectations?
Turkey handles 26.5 tons of freight via its railways a year. This project alone is expected to double that figure and generate about $1 billion in income a year. A $400-million logistics center is being established in Kars and similar investments are being planned in other regions of Turkey. These logistics centers aim to distribute the freight coming through the main corridor.
8 What was the impact of the region’s transport policies?
Running across three countries, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail project is expected to expand its scope, with a series of railway projects on the agenda. Kazakhstan and Afghanistan has expressed its interest in the project. While Iran has announced that it wants to open the still-closed Azerbaijani railway connection, the Georgian government has announced that it will consider reopening still-closed Sukhumi-Tbilisi railway.
9 How will the project affect the countries in the region?
Firstly, the economic relations between the countries included in the project will increase. The closed Kars-Gumru-Tbilisi line passing through Armenia will remain inoperative and the isolation of Armenia will increase. Russia, which has made great efforts towards the China-Europe railway corridor, is monitoring the project from a distance. Routes from Kazakhstan, which has ambitious targets for transit freight, will increase. Iran will suffer losses due to the new traffic between Turkey and CIS countries.
10 How much of Turkey’s trade goes through its railroads?
The share of Turkey’s imports/exports being transported through its railroads has decreased by half in the last five years. In 2010, the railways carried imports/exports worth $3.5 billion and $4.5 billion in 2011 before this total decreased to $2 billion in 2016. In the same period, the share of foreign trade carried by Turkish railways decreased from 1.2% to 0.6%. It is said that the railways are less preferred because the costs are relatively high and the service quality low .