Faced with growing demand for transit freight between the Central Asian republics and the Indian Ocean, RAI needs to modernise motive power and freight operations if it is to handle major flows of high-value traffic and containers. David Brice reports

THIS MONTH sees the inauguration of the 800 km direct line between Bafgh and Mashhad, which is to be opened by President Khatami of Iran on May 3. The line is expected to handle substantial quantities of transit freight between the Turkmenistan border at Sarakhs and the strategic Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas (RG 4.05 p181).

The long-awaited link between Kerman and Pakistan's rail network at Zahedan is already open as far as Bam, and should be complete within 12 months. There will also be a 595 km branch from this new line to the developing port of Chabahar, close to the Pakistan border.

Construction of the rail tunnel under the Bosporus has commenced, and Turkey has completed a feasibility study for a railway around the northern shore of Lake Van, avoiding the present train ferry. When these projects are complete, there will be a through rail route with one gauge change between the Indian subcontinent and Western Europe. Whereas through movement by rail is unlikely to be heavy, many intermediate flows could be attracted to rail. Traffic between the Indian subcontinent and the Central Asian republics avoiding the Himalayas is just one example.

Iran is three times the size of France, and historically it has occupied an important strategic location at the crossroads of several important trade routes along which substantial traffic flows are now building up. To a large extent these are prompted by political changes following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Quite apart from the prospects for transit traffic, the population distribution over this large country is concentrated in and around cities that are substantial distances apart. Iran needs a comprehensive rail network, and the 7300 km now available is expected to expand by a further 50%, with new links opened into Azerbaijan, and maybe even Afghanistan.

Late development

Up to the 1970s, various factors had conspired to block construction of the national network that Iran now sees as essential:

  • A policy of isolationism from adjoining countries;
  • Difficult geography with two substantial mountain ranges, much desert wilderness, temperature extremes and frequent earthquakes;
  • Political instability and the effect over past years of foreign occupation of substantial parts of the country.

The main players in the Great Game, Great Britain and Russia, have watched each other closely in this region for much of the past 150 years. Russian rail construction from Azerbaijan (Jolfa) to Tabriz in 1917 was countered in the same year by extending India's North West Railway from Quetta through Baluchistan to Zahedan.

Instability following the break-up of the Soviet Union interrupted international rail traffic through Jolfa, which now adjoins a fragment of Azerbaijan isolated by Armenian territory from the rest of that country. This crossing has been closed for around 15 years, but as we shall see, an alternative route is planned.

The 1 389 km 'Shah's Railway', completed between the head of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea in 1938, crosses both the Elburz and Zagros mountain ranges with spiral sections and over 50 km of tunnels. This line is very expensive to operate, and the most challenging section includes a 2·78% gradient 60 km long. Lack of ventilation in the tunnels limits the usefulness of a third locomotive and renders a fourth almost counter-productive.

After Tehran and Tabriz were linked in 1958, the 1970s saw a national rail network really start to take shape. The connection with Turkey at Razi came in 1971, and by 1980 major routes linking the capital to Mashhad and Kerman were in operation. The major container port at Bandar Abbas was also connected. A vital strategic link from Mashhad to Sarakhs, connecting through Turkmenistan with the other Central Asian republics, opened in 2000.

In 1994 the government had decided to increase rail's share of the transport infrastructure budget to 30%. This resulted in 1 640 route-km being built, with another 3 500 km of new line currently under construction. Many other options are under examination, and Iran is building more new railway than any country except China.

Locos and signalling needed

While all this construction goes on, rising traffic levels have created rolling stock shortages, severe motive power problems, and an urgent need for more line capacity on several main routes.

Signalling requires urgent attention, together with a general acceleration of freight trains. This is necessary for two important reasons: first, to reduce block occupancy on single track lines, and secondly to create more commercially attractive transit times for both passengers and freight in the face of increasing road competition.

Existing lines are largely single with passing loops, and with no intermediate signalling between loops, capacity is limited. Iranian Islamic Republic Railways' freight services struggle to cope with ever-rising demand. RAI runs its freight un-timetabled and at a low maximum speed of 60 km/h to enable maximum loads to be hauled.

The result is that transit times are too long and traffic is mainly minerals and low-value goods, leaving containers and higher-value traffic to road. There is a significant opportunity here - indeed, a necessity - for RAI to reshape and re-equip its services to attract the rapidly-increasing container traffic handled via the expanding port of Bandar Abbas.

RAI's locomotive fleet is almost entirely composed of aging GM-EMD or GE units, inadequate in number and power for the rapidly-developing network. The fleet badly needs enhancement and modernisation of the more powerful units, but the US trade embargo presents a major complication.

However, the right measures are being taken. The 3000hp GT26 class is being re-engineered, and a new build of 100 locos of 4000hp from Alstom is coming into service, although it is taking time for these locos to match the American motive power in coping with the extremely rugged operating conditions.

Partial privatisation

Options for privatisation of some of RAI's activities are under close examination. To date, track and vehicle maintenance have been privatised, together with some open access passenger operation. Introduction of private capital in the form of joint ventures into freight operations is a likely future development, as this could give major customers greater control over their traffic flows as well as reducing pressure on RAI's investment budget.

In 1996 RAI's substantial passenger business was established as Raja Passenger Trains. In 2003 the company handled 14·1 million journeys and 9·3 billion passenger-km (p283). Rolling stock was transferred to Raja, but RAI provides motive power and train paths, and no track access charges are paid.

Strategic links

Freight is the main revenue-earner, and will benefit from the strategic link into Central Asia provided by the opening of the Mashhad - Sarakhs line in 2000. This requires a bogie change to the Russian 1 520 mm gauge, but traffic development here is such that the 200 wagons a day capacity of the present facility is currently being doubled.

The line into Pakistan through Baluchistan runs for 94 km from the border at Mirjaveh to Zahedan and is of Indian broad gauge (1 676 mm). Gauge change will be required here when the link from Kerman to Zahedan is completed next year.

The 926 kmTehran - Mashhad route has recently been doubled, and a direct double-track route between Tehran and Qom was opened in 1999. This will be extended to Esfahan in the longer term, and a high speed passenger service is planned.

Passenger services are slow by comparison with other countries, as being largely overnight there has been little incentive for acceleration. However the upgraded Tehran - Mashhad line has been designed for 160 km/h and the new Alstom locos are capable of that speed, as are the 20 four-car DH4-1 DMUs being delivered by Siemens (RG 7.03 p457).

All new lines are being built to impressive standards: 160 km/h passenger operation and 100 km/h for freight, 25 tonne axleload, and grade separation of all road crossings. There is a steady programme for replacement of existing level crossings with bridges.

The new line between Bafgh and Mashhad will reduce the distance between Bandar Abbas and the Turkmenistan border at Sarakhs by 1 000 km compared to the present route via Tehran. This is a vital link between the new Central Asian republics and the open sea and thus world markets - Bandar Abbas is served by round-the-world container shipping lines. TheBafgh - Bandar Abbas line was constructed for double track but only one track was laid. This is already up to capacity, and upgrading is in hand.

A third very important international link will be the now agreed, but yet to be financed, 511 km rail link south from Astara in Azerbaijan to Qazvin in Iran via the Caspian Sea coast (RG 3.05 p118) and Rasht. Russian Railways is promoting this North - South Corridor between St Petersburg and the Indian Ocean with the vision that it will handle traffic between Germany and Northern Europe by sea to St Petersburg, and thence by rail to the Indian subcontinent. A trilateral working group is developing plans for the new line, which will avoid the present need to ship transit traffic down the Caspian Sea.

Standard gauge from China

Another significant major project where construction has recently commenced is creation of a standard gauge line from China across Kazakhstan. The aim is to create a standard gauge route from China through to Western Europe. There would be a new cross-border link from Gargan to Gomishan in Turkmenistan, with traffic being routed thence via Turkey and the new Bosporus tunnel.

Shipping capacity is said to be under pressure, accentuated by congestion through the Suez Canal. Very heavy rail tonnages have been postulated, although rail costs are unlikely to match low shipping costs. The degree of traffic transfer is likely to depend upon reliability and perceived value of reduced transit times.

Bright future

Links to two more of Iran's neighbouring countries are planned. One would start from Sangan, on an easterly mine branch from the new Bafgh - Mashhad cut-off, and would extend to Herat in Afghanistan.

Two routes into Iraq are also being examined, although construction is likely to await a more stable political situation. Iraq suffers from highly inadequate port capacity which Iran could remedy by linking its Persian Gulf ports to Basra, and there is heavy passenger pilgrim potential for a link to Baghdad via Kermanshah.

All these new strategic transit corridors offer the possibility of heavy landbridge traffic flows passing though Iran, which will do much to raise the profile of RAI and of the country in general. Many other new domestic lines are also under examination.

RAI President Mohammad Saeidnejad announced in January 2005 development plans that would see traffic approximately doubled from the current 16 million passenger-journeys and 26 million tonnes of freight.

The government is committed to rail development, and there is a department at the Ministry of Roads & Transportation wholly-devoted to rail construction. There is every indication that within 10 years Iran will have a comprehensive rail network built to modern standards and fulfilling a vital function both domestically and for international transit corridors of world significance.

* David Brice has been engaged on strategic transport studies in Iran whilst working for the Egis Group of France, which has provided the background for this article.