Trans-Asian Railway – Iron Silk road

The Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) is a project to create an integrated freight railway network across Europe and Asia. The TAR is a project of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

The project was initiated in the 1960s, with the objective of providing a continuous 8,750 miles (14,080 km) rail link betweenSingapore and Istanbul, Turkey, with possible further connections to Europe and Africa. At the time shipping and air travel were not as well developed, and the project promised to significantly reduce shipping times and costs between Europe and Asia. Progress in developing the TAR was hindered by political and economic obstacles throughout the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. By the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and normalisation of relations between some countries improved the prospects for creating a rail network across the Asian continent.

The TAR was seen as a way to accommodate the huge increases in international trade between Eurasian nations and facilitate the increased movements of goods between countries. It was also seen as a way to improve the economies and accessibility of landlocked countries like Laos, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and the Central Asian republics.

Much of the railway network already exists as part of the Eurasian Land Bridge, although some significant gaps remain. A big challenge is the differences in rail gauge across Eurasia. Four different major rail gauges (which measures the distance between rails) exist across the continent: most of Europe, as well as Turkey, Iran, China, and the Koreas use the 1435 mm gauge, known asStandard gauge; Russia, and the former Soviet republics use a 1520 mm gauge; Finland use a 1524 mm gauge; most of the railways in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka use a 1676 mm gauge, and most of Southeast Asia has metre-gauge. For the most part the TAR would not change national gauges; mechanized facilities would be built to move shipping containers from train to train at the breaks of gauge.

A big obstacle is also the need of sea transport to Japan and South Korea. A container ship has room for many more containers than a train. Therefore ships must go less regularly than trains, creating a big delay. There are hopes to create an overland connection through North Korea, however there is still a break-of-gauge.

By 2001, the four corridors had been studied as part of the plan:

  • The Northern Corridor will link Europe and the Pacific, via Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and the Koreas, with breaks of gauge at the Polish-Belarusian border (1435 mm to 1520 mm), the Kazakhstan-Chinese border (1520 mm to 1435 mm), and the Mongolian-Chinese border (1520 mm to 1435 mm). The 5,750 miles (9,250 km) Trans-Siberian Railwaycovers much of this route and currently carries large amounts of freight from East-Asia to Moscow and on to the rest of Europe. Due to political problems with North Korea, freight from South Korea must currently be shipped by sea to the port of Vladivostok to access the route.
  • The Southern Corridor will go from Europe to Southeast Asia, connecting Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand, with links to China’s Yunnan Province and, via Malaysia, to Singapore. Gaps exist between India and Myanmar, between Myanmar and Thailand, between Thailand and Cambodia, between Cambodia and Vietnam and between Thailand and Yunnan. The section in eastern Iran between Bam and Zahedan has been completed. Breaks of gauge occur, or will occur, at the Iran-Pakistan border (1435 mm to 1676 mm), the India-Myanmar border (1676 mm to 1000 mm), and to China (1000 mm to 1435 mm).
  • The North-South Corridor will link Northern Europe to the Persian Gulf. The main route starts in Helsinki, Finland, and continues through Russia to the Caspian Sea, where it splits into three routes: a western route through Azerbaijan, Armenia, and western Iran; a central route across the Caspian Sea to Iran via ferry; and an eastern route through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to eastern Iran. The routes converge in the Iranian capital of Tehran and continue to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas

The network

The Trans-Asian Railway system will consist of four main railway routes. The existing Trans-Siberian railway, which connects Moscow to Vladivostok, will be used for a portion of the network in Russia.[5] Another corridor to be included will connect China to Korea, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan.[6] In 2003, the president of Kazakhstan proposed building a standard gauge link fromDostyk (on the Chinese border) to Gorgan in Iran; it has not yet been built.[7]

[edit]Standards

Complicating the plan is the differences in rail gauges currently in use across the continent. While China, Iran and Turkey currently use 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) standard gauge tracks, Russia’s tracks are gauged at 1520 mm (5 ft), India’s and Pakistan’s tracks are 1676 mm (5 ft 6 in) gauge, the tracks covering an area from Bangladesh east to Vietnam and south to the tip of the Malay Peninsulaare 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 3⁄8 in) gauge with some dual gauge track near the China-Vietnam border and within Bangladesh, and tracks in Indonesia and Japan are 1067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge.[3] This leads to time consuming interchanges to handle the break of gauge at main connecting points in the network.

Other standards to consider are:

Progress

The Trans-Asian Railway Project has not been a great success so far. Very little railway has been built along the corridors during the 40 years. The Northern Corridor was working already in the 1960s, although only for Soviet Union-China trade. Successes so far include:

Technically it is possible to introduce a train service on the rail route between Istanbul (Turkey) to Dhaka (Bangladesh), with a break of gauge at Zahedan on Iran – Pakistan border.

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