RFE/RL, March 25, 2013
More than 200 years after the arrival of steam locomotives changed the world of transport forever, the "iron horse" has finally made it to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is in the early stages of constructing a cross-country rail network intended to spur economic development and boost trade.
The idea is to turn Afghanistan into a land bridge linking the energy-rich Middle East and Central Asia with the booming economies of China and South Asia, according to Deputy Public Works Minister Ahmad Shah Wahid.
"If we were linked with our neighbors through railway networks it would be a great development for our future prosperity,” he says. “It would improve trade and improve the lives of ordinary people."
The first step in this process came in 2001 with the completion of a 75-kilometer railway line connecting the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif to Uzbekistan's rail network. The line was constructed with the help of $160 million from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Uzbekistan's state railway company is conducting a feasibility study on extending the link to the Tajik-Afghan border as part of a northern railway corridor for international cargo.
The second step entails connecting Turkmenistan and Tajikistan via a new 400-kilometer track crossing northern Afghanistan, again with funding from the ADB. Construction is set to begin in July, according to an agreement signed among the three states this month, and Turkmen workers will build the Afghan section of the rail line.
Shah Wahid sees great potential in establishing trade outlets for oil and minerals extracted in northern Afghanistan.
"This is really a revolutionary development in Afghanistan and the region's transit networks,” he says. “It will also connect Central Asian countries with one another. Even in the short term, this could bring a positive effect to households and will give our traders access to the region."
Aside from the two northern projects, future lines connecting western Afghanistan to Iran and southern Afghanistan to Pakistan are also being planned. And talk is already turning toward the possibility of someday joining the Commonwealth of Independent States' rail-oversight body, and of building a link that could connect Afghanistan to Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Georgia.
The goal to link Afghan territory by rail is not a new one, and has eluded planners for decades.
Afghan historian Habibullah Rafi notes that many 19th and 20th century Afghan rulers resisted efforts to connect to regional rail networks because they feared it would help the advancing British and Russian empires absorb Afghan territory.
It took until 1925 for the country to build its first railway line -- a 7-kilometer track linking the center of Kabul and the Darul Aman Palace on the capital's southern outskirts. That effort, part of the reformist King Amanullah Khan's modernization drive, was undone just four years later during a revolt against Amanullah.
President Muhammad Daud Khan, who led the country from 1973 to 1978, laid new plans to connect the country by rail. But his efforts, too, failed to materialize, according to Habibullah Rafi.
"During the reign of President Daud Khan [in the 1970s] there was a plan to connect Kabul to the western city of Herat through the central regions of Hazarajat,” he says. “But his government was overthrown before it could implement the project."
That left King Amanullah's rusting locomotive and carriages, which still stand outside a Kabul museum, as the only testaments to Afghanistan’s previous efforts to enter the railway era.