by Onur Uysal
Baku-Tbilisi-Kars, one of the most important railway projects in region, is expected to be completed soon. The project may have deep effects in transportation alternatives which will surely have economical and political consequences.
Here are 10 things to know about Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project:
826 km Connecting 3 Countries
The length of railway between Baku and Kars will be 826 km in total connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. In addition to currently 721 km currently in use Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki line between Azerbaijan and Georgia, 105 km railway is under construction between Akhalkalaki/Georgia and Kars/Turkey. 76 km is in Turkey, between Kars and border, where 29 km will be in Georgia, from border to Akhalkalaki. Two border stations will be constructed in two sides of the border, Canbaz in Turkish side, and Karsakhi in Georgian side. A 2 km long tunnel at border is connecting two countries. 153 km railway in Georgia is also either renewed or reconstructed within the scope of this project.
Gauge Change at Akhalkalaki
The route is made up of two different railway gauges: Broad gauge (1520mm) from Baku to Akhalkalaki and standard gauge (1435mm) from Akhalkalaki to Kars. The break-of-gauge will be at Akhalkalaki and therefore a bogie exchange station will be built there. That will enable CIS wagons to move in Turkey. So loads will move between CIS countries and Turkey without need of handling even when conventional wagons are used.
Azerbaijan to be Connected to World
Without doubt, Azerbaijan will get the biggest benefit of this line. Oil products exporter Azerbaijan will directly connect to oil products importer Turkey by rail. Furthermore Azerbaijan will have the chance to be connected to Europe and other regions using port and railway connections of Turkey.
Iron Silk Road to CIS Countries
Turkey’s passion about this project is of course building up the silk road by rail. Together with the Marmaray project, Turkey is expecting to have share from the China-Europe rail traffic. Although this route may not become the main route for China-Europe traffic unless route via Russia is deactivated , it may play an important role in transports between Turkey and CIS countries (Is Marmaray Key for Europe-Asia Rail Connection?).
Passenger Trains Between Baku and Istanbul
Although freight is on focus in this project, there is a great expectation about passenger traffic as well. One million passenger is expected to use this line annually at the beginning, and Azerbaijan Railways already had an agreement with Swiss company Stadler for the production of sleepers to be used between Baku and Istanbul (Sleepers for Baku Tbilisi Kars). In long term, ridership is expected to reach to 3 millions/year.
Great Targets About Freight
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars project is built to create a energy corridor by rail mainly supplied by Azerbaijan. In addition to that, the current traffic from Turkey to CIS countries will shift to this line. Since current traffic via Iran is facing with long delays in Van Lake and Saraks, opening of this line may cause a shift to railway. The line is expected to have a annual volume of 6,5 million to at the beginning. Target is 17 million to/year in long term.
Kars to be Hub for Freight
Kars will play a critical role in this huge freight traffic. Due to operational reasons, most of the cargo is expected to be transshipped to Turkish wagons at Kars. That means a millions of tons of cargo to be handled and stored in Kars. Management of hundreds of CIS and TCDD wagons at the same time will be another issue. Thus, Kars is announced to be one of the 18 logistic centers of TCDD as a part of 2023 targets. It’s already heard that Azerbaijan is planning to build up and operate a logistics center of 30 hectares in Kars. Van and Tatvan, on the other hand, will lose its importance for loads on rail to CIS countries via Iran.
Further Connections Expected
Although three countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey) is involved in this project, there are a few railway projects under construction or under discussion which will extend the coverage of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line. Kazakhstan has just completed a west-east rail connection which may be a strong alternative for connection Turkey to China via Caspian Sea (Kazakhstan to Strengthen China Europe Corridor). Afghanistan has also announced interest in this project. Iran’s willing to open railway connection to Azerbaijan, and Georgian Government’s statement about reopening Sukhumi-Tbilisi railway are some other projects that may extend the coverage of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line in the future.
Deep Political Consequences
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line will end up with strengthening economic relations between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Reopening of Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi line via Armenia will be almost unnecessary which will strength isolation of Armenia. Russia, investing a lot on China-Europe traffic, will surely watch the progress of project. Azerbaijan will have voice in Turkey-CIS countries traffic. Kazakhstan will be able to enrich its transit traffic from China which is one of the main targets of Kazakhstan Railways. Iran will face with rapid decrease in transit loads from Turkey to CIS countries which is surely against its targets of strengthening connections with neighbors.
Opening in 2015
Both the kick-off and opening of the line have been postponed many times due to several reasons. The construction works continue on both sides of the Turkey/Georgia border. The last part to be completed will probably be the 4,5 km tunnel between two countries. Tunnel is expected to be ready by mid-2015’s. Test launch of first cars is scheduled for the end of 2014, construction works to be completed in first half of 2015 and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line is planned to be fully commissioned by the end of 2015.