A temporary suspension of the transit of freight wagons from the Galaba railway station in the city of Termez, Uzbekistan to the Hairatan railway station in Afghanistan just across the river was lifted on February 10. A few days later a new agreement was signed between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan’s national rail operator, Oz’bekistan Temir Yo’llari (UTY) first suspended transit on February 1, reportedly because the Afghanistan Railways Authority (ARA) failed to perform planned maintenance on the rail line. This suspension followed a series of disagreements between the two national rail operators over who governs the Afghan section of the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif rail line.
The Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif railway line is part of the Trans-Afghan railway project. As I noted back in July 2022, the Trans-Afghan railway project, first proposed in December 2018 by Uzbekistan, aims to extend the Afghan rail network from Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul and then to Nangarhar province, where the railway would cross the Torkham border and run into Pakistan via Peshawar. It is planned to be 573 km long. Once in Pakistan, goods will be offloaded to connect with the Pakistan rail system and from there will eventually travel down to the Pakistani seaports of Karachi, Gwadar, and Qasim. The Trans-Afghan railway line plans to also link with the railway network of Iran to eventually reach the port city of Bandar Abbas, but that effort is seemingly a less desired option due to sanctions and trade restrictions on Iran.
The rail route is also connected to the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway project, a system that aims to connect Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang region to the city of Andijan in Uzbekistan via Kyrgyzstan. Once in Andijan, the railway will connect to the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif railway network.
The Afghan branch of the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif railway line has always been managed by Uzbekistan. From the Uzbek side, UTY established a subsidiary, Sogdiana Trans, back in 2011 to manage the 75-kilometer rail link.
Under the new agreement signed on February 12 between the Afghanistan Railway Authority and Sogdiana Trans, there are three key aspects worth noting. The first is that Uzbekistan will continue to operate and work on the Trans-Afghan railway line for another two years – until 2025. Second, the parties also agreed to restore traffic on the Friendship Bridge between Termez and Hairatan and speed up the delivery of goods that were held up in Uzbekistan to the Mazar-i-Sharif railway station. Third, the agreement also included the training of Afghan railway specialists.
Key Issues Remain Unresolved
While UTY has resumed cargo transport along the rail line to Mazar-i-Sharif, some key issues remain unresolved. One issue worth honing in on is who will control and manage the full length of the Trans-Afghan railway once the extension from Mazar-i-Sharif to the seaports of Pakistan and Iran is completed. How it is going to be run is arguably as important or more so than its construction.
Disagreements over the management of the railway in Afghanistan first appeared in April 2022 in Ariana news, an Afghan news outlet, which quoted the ARA as saying that “the contracts for the use of the country’s railway stations with neighboring countries were made without taking into account the interests of Afghanistan.” It further reported that the ARA had expressed the idea of renegotiating the contract with Sogdiana Trans and handing over operations of the railway line to local Afghan private operators.
Bakht-u-Rahmon Sharafat, the chairman of the ARA, said that Sogdiana Trans “receives $18 million dollars a year under the contract for the management of the Hayraton-Mazar-i-Sharif railway line. However, local companies are willing to do the same for 25 percent of this price.”
Complexity around the operational management of the railway had been snowballing. A few months later in December 2022, Afghan news channel TOLO News reported that a Kazakh company, Mansoor Fateh, was now managing the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif railway line instead of UTY. This was allegedly done upon the invitation of the ARA.
However, UTY issued a statement denying the handover of management to Mansoor Fateh and instead announced that negotiations between the ARA and Sogdiana Trans were still underway. UTY also noted the intention of the Afghan side to extend the contract with Sogdiana Trans. This series of disagreements was interpreted among Uzbek news outlets as a cooling of relations between the Uzbek government and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
A Presidential Push and a Mixed Prognosis
In the same month, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirzoyeyev approved further plans for the implementation of major regional railway projects, and he mentioned the Trans-Afghan railway line as a key project. He announced that in 2023, the Uzbek government plans to establish an office for this railway line, attract an international consulting company, and hold negotiations with potential investors. In addition, Mirzoyeyev noted that the results of the feasibility study that was carried out in the summer of 2022 from Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan to the city of Torkham in Pakistan will also be published.
This recent spat over the governance of the Afghan branch of the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif railway line offers a telling microcosm of the future difficulties that the Trans-Afghan railway project could face. So far it has been fraught with problems, management being the main one. Despite this, Uzbekistan remains interested in developing the rail route.
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter who owns the railway; what matters is how it is structured and managed. For Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to learn from this, it is important for these countries to remember that a railway is a system and needs to be managed as such. Thus two things need to be considered. First, both sides need to develop a unified corridor management mechanism(s) to increase coordination between the railway authorities and other stakeholders along the corridor. History is replete with examples of railway systems suffering from daily interruptions, disturbances, and bureaucratic spats over how they would like their train systems to be managed and by whom.
And if history serves as a preview, transparency is key but difficult to maintain for strategic projects of this size and in this part of the world. So far from what we can see, the lack of transparency has increased political tensions between Uzbekistan and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Public investment on this scale should engage all stakeholders in order to assess risk and economic viability and ensure the country is getting a good return on its investment. On the matter of bang for buck, it is still not clear who will foot the bill for the entire project.