On the occasion of opening of Iran's new railway between Mashhad and Bafgh on May 3, RAI President Mohammad Saiednejad discussed the project with Murray Hughes in Mashhad

Hughes: President Khatami referred in his speech today to the economic and political significance of the Mashhad - Bafgh railway for Iran and for the landlocked Central Asian countries. How significant is the new line for RAI?

Saeidnejad: The new line starts at Kashmar, a short distance south of Mashhad, and then runs for 800 km to Bafgh. It has three major branches serving important mines at Chadormalou, Parvadeh and Sangan, and together these will generate about 10 million tonnes of traffic a year for RAI. Some of the coal and ore will be shipped to Esfahan, which produces 6 million tonnes of steel a year, and some will head for Ahvaz, where there is another important steelworks.

Hughes: When will this traffic start running?

Saeidnejad: We are ready to begin now - and you have already seen the first container train.

Hughes: With transit traffic, is RAI's capacity limited by the need to change gauge at Sarakhs on the Turkmenistan frontier?

Saeidnejad: We expect to carry 1·3 million tonnes a year of transit freight from the Central Asian countries which now have direct access to the sea - and this will earn more revenue for RAI. We have already increased the capacity of the bogie-changing equipment at Sarakhs from 80 to 160 wagons a day, and with new installations, capacity will rise further to 300 wagons a day.

Hughes: When do you plan to start passenger services over the new route?

Saeidnejad: That will be in a few months' time, maybe in September. Mashhad is a very attractive destination because of the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza - and the city already welcomes around 15 million pilgrims and tourists a year. So we will be running three or four passenger trains a day, probably one from each of the southern provinces.

Hughes: What were the biggest challenges for the construction teams?

Saeidnejad: Two major tunnels had to be built, the Khomari and Siah Kouh tunnels, each about 2·5 km long. Building the Khomari tunnel required the use of special methods and techniques because there were flows of underground water in layers of crushed rock, meaning that the ground above the tunnel had to be stabilised. Major bridges also had to be built. The salt marshes on the central part of the route were a special problem, while sand and sandstorms will be a constant threat to operations.

Hughes: RAI is planning to acquire more new rolling stock. Can you give details?

Saeidnejad: Yes, we are already taking delivery of 187 new coaches from China, and 42 of these arrived in the last month. The first of this fleet entered service at the start of the Iranian New Year on March 20. We are also planning to buy railbuses from South Korea, and we want to produce 200 new locomotives in Iran in conjunction with a European supplier, but we have not made our choice yet. Siemens, Alstom and Bombardier are all in the frame.

Hughes: What will be RAI's next major project?

Saeidnejad: The next big scheme to be finished will be the line from Bam to Zahedan, providing a link into Pakistan - most of the infrastructure is already complete. After that the line from Qazvin and Rasht is very important to us. We held a meeting in Tehran on May 2 with a delegation from Russia, and the idea was put forward that a joint company be set up to build the line (p322). Another very important scheme is the line to Kermanshah, which will be extended into Iraq and Syria. Geographically and strategically this is very significant as it will provide a rail link to the Mediterranean Sea.

'We expect to carry 1·3 million tonnes a year of transit freight'
RAI President Mohammad Saeidnejad