Murray Hughes travelled to Mashhad to join the ceremony marking opening by President Khatami of Iran of the Mashhad - Bafgh railway

'IN THE name of Allah I will begin my task.' Driver Moradi was responding to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, who moments before had authorised Moradi to start the inaugural train over the new railway from Mashhad to Bafgh. It was 11.45 on May 3.

Immaculately dressed, Moradi turned from the video camera and climbed aboard his locomotive, the nose emblazoned with an orange and yellow commemorative banner. Around 500 people watched a video screen inside Mashhad station hall as Moradi gave a blast on the horn and eased open the throttle of the Alstom Prima locomotive. The muffled sound of the 4300hp 16RK215 Ruston diesel engine rose as the camera captured the train's historic departure.

Behind the loco followed a long string of containers, each adorned with the flag of the country originating the goods inside. The first box was from Iran, the second from Turkmenistan and the third from Afghanistan. Goods included cotton, tyres and televisions, but all that was visible to those inside the hall were the roofs of the containers gliding past the high windows. A second train, whose locomotive was decorated with an identical banner, followed the inaugural special.

Earlier, guests had heard the Iranian national anthem and an official recitation from the Koran before listening to speeches by the General Governor of Khorasan province and Transport Minister Rahmati. President Khatami next distributed commemorative gifts to senior officials involved in the project. This duty over, he began his speech.

'Nothing could be sweeter than the inauguration of such projects - projects in line with the prosperity and welfare of our nation. It is sweet to provide services to the people', he said. But he warned that 'the whole world is paying attention to this region ... because of the wrong policies of the big powers'; in contrast 'Iran is the most stable country of the region', he said. Speaking at one of the last major events of his presidency - an election is due on June 17 - Khatami extolled the achievements of those who had built the line: 'everything was done by Iranian engineers and workers, and that is an issue that we can be proud of'. Not only that, but building 1000 km of railway in four years was 'a record feat' for Iran, with the line finished two years earlier than anticipated.

Khatami then unveiled a copper plaque mounted on a granite slab at the entrance to the platform. Engraved for posterity on the copper was wording commemorating the inauguration 'in the presence of authorities from friendly countries'. Guests were present from 12 countries, with nine official delegations, including Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Khatami then proceeded over a red and gold carpet to board a special train that had replaced the inaugural freight service at the platform. As local media scrambled for pictures, the President and his guests boarded one of five brand-new Chinese air-conditioned coaches. The door closed, and the driver of the EMD GT26 loco at the head of the train sounded his horn. With a second EMD diesel bringing up the rear, the special pulled sharply away as officials on the platform began the task of clearing up. The station had to be ready for the afternoon's battery of passenger trains for Tehran - departures are scheduled at hourly intervals from 16.00 to 22.00.