The construction of new cross-border links and the introduction of concessioning look set to change the shape of rail operations in the Caucasus over the next few years, reports Chris Jackson

THE LAYING of a foundation stone at Marabda station in the Tetri-Tsakro region of Georgia on November 21 marked the formal start of work on the long-planned rail link between Turkey and Georgia. Reflecting the international significance of the event, the two countries' presidents participated in the ceremony, along with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.

Now expected to be complete by 2010, the Kars - Tbilisi corridor is one of several cross-border rail projects being developed in the Caucasus region, which lies between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, hemmed in by the Caucasus mountains to the north and the Lesser Caucasus range to the south.

Changing international relations and internal unrest following the break-up of the Soviet Union have severed many of the former main lines in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, leaving most trunk routes fragmented or closed completely. Transit traffic has plummeted as passengers and freight shippers have switched to road or developed different trading partners.

Domestic traffic has rebounded in Georgia and Azerbaijan, but the region's politicians believe that opening up new cross-border links, reflecting current political realities, will create new opportunities for international trade.

But as in so many cases, finance has been the stumbling block, with the three countries unable to allocate sufficient state funding for railway development alongside other priorities such as health, education and economic reform.

Painstaking negotiations over many years, plus the backing of the neighbouring states of Russia, Turkey and Iran, has finally started to bear fruit, and the first of the cross-border corridors are starting to move into the construction phase.

Revitalisation of the existing railways will also be essential if the new links are to achieve the kind of modal shift that is envisaged, and here the trend is to look to the private sector. The governments of both Georgia and Armenia (p52) announced in 2007 that they were looking to award concessions for the restoration and operation of their rail networks.

Broken connections

The principal rail corridor through the Caucasus region runs east-west from Baku to the Black Sea via Tbilisi, linking the capitals of Azerbaijan and Georgia. However, the western connection along the Black Sea coast into Russia has been broken for almost 15 years by unrest in the Abkhazia region of northwest Georgia, forcing the Caucasian railways to rely on train ferry connections with Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria.

On the north-south axis, Azerbaijan remains connected to Russia via a route along the Caspian Sea, through the autonomous republic of Dagestan. Trains can reach Astrakhan, but the line heading northwest from Makhachkala towards Moscow passes through the troubled region of Chechnia and has been heavily disrupted. Soviet Railways began work on a new trunk route running north from Tbilisi through the Caucasus mountains to Ordzhonikidze, but this has never been completed.

Heading south from Tbilisi, the two former main lines diverged at Gyumri in Armenia, with one route heading west to Turkey and the other south to Iran.

Both have long been broken by border closures, leaving the Armenian capital Yerevan isolated on the end of a single winding route from the Georgian border.

At the heart of the fragmentation is the long-standing animosity between Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose isolated Naxcivan region lies astride the Yerevan - Tabriz corridor. Turkey supports Azerbaijan, and has broken off diplomatic relations with Armenia. Meanwhile, Georgia and Iran attempt to maintain good relations with both of their neighbours.

Work is currently pushing ahead on two main cross-border projects. The Kars - Tbilisi line will provide a direct connection from Turkey into Georgia, to circumvent the direct line from Kars to Gyumri in Armenia, which has been closed since 1993. On the eastern side of the region, the Astara - Reshht - Qazvin link will complete a north-south corridor connecting Russia and Azerbaijan with the Iranian rail network.

Meanwhile, Armenia is anxious to restore its rail link to Turkey, and has made several overtures to the Turkish government. According to Arsen Ghazaryan of the Armenian Union of Manufacturers & Businessmen, international trade with Turkey is still running at more than US$500m a year, which is all being handled by road in the absence of a functioning rail connection.

A more distant prospect is a new line running south from Yerevan through the Little Caucasus mountains, opening up mineral reserves in the isolated southern part of Armenia and reinstating a connection to Iran through the gap between Azerbaijan and Naxcivan.

Kars - Tbilisi

First proposed in the mid-1990s as build-operate-transfer concession, the Kars - Tbilisi project went through a number of revisions before tenders were invited for a turnkey contract in 1998. Nothing came of this, however, and the line is now to be funded by the three governments involved.

To create the new corridor, a 1435 mm gauge line is to be built northwards from Kars through Turkey's mountainous Ardahan region, crossing the Georgian border near Khaveti and running to the existing GR railhead at Akhalkalaki. There will be 98 km of new construction, of which 68 km will be in Turkey and 30 km in Georgia.

At the same time, the steeply-graded 160 km single-track 1520 mm gauge branch from Akhalkalaki to Tbilisi will be upgraded with easier gradients and smoother curves. The long-term plan envisages that the whole corridor may be double-tracked and electrified.

Total cost of the project is put at around US$700m, of which the three governments have already agreed to provide US$422m. Turkey is providing US$220m to fund the construction of the line to be built on its territory, while Azerbaijan has provided Georgia with a US$200m credit which will fund the construction of the final section of the new line and some upgrading work on the current route from Akhalkalaki to the Azeri border southeast of Tbilisi.

The three presidents signed an agreement for construction in February 2007, following a meeting of their transport ministers in Tbilisi on January 12 (RG 2.07 p57).

The new connection is expected to take around three years to build, with opening now envisaged by the end of 2010. Traffic is expected to total 3 million tonnes of freight and 1·5 million passengers in 2010, rising to 16·5 million tonnes of freight and 3·5 million passengers in 2034.

At the start of work ceremony on November 21, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan recalled that ‘for long years, the talks we carried out with numerous financial and international organisations did not bear fruit.' But, he continued, ‘our countries have showed the will and now we will solve this project ourselves. All financial and technical questions have found a solution, the technical economic calculations are solved, and today we can start construction.'

Building links with Iran

Iran is currently emerging as the railway crossroads of Central Asia, with several new projects taking shape to augment its existing links to Turkey in the west and Turkmenistan in the northeast. The missing link between Bam and the Pakistan Railways railhead at Zahedan is due to be completed by the end of this year, and an agreement to create a 650 km north-south rail corridor parallel to the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea was signed by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran at a summit held in Tehran on October 16 (RG 11.07 p674). Meanwhile, work has started on a cross-border route running east into Afghanistan (p55).

Little wonder, then, that both Azerbaijan and Armenia are keen to re-establish rail links with their southern neighbour. The existing lines south from Baku and Yerevan to the Iranian border at Jolfa are both interrupted by sections running through rival territory, so two new corridors are envisaged.

More advanced is the Azeri project to develop a line running south from the railhead at Astara on the Caspian Sea coast. This 375 km route to Qazvin via Bandar Azali and Resht lies almost entirely within Iran, but it is being developed jointly by the railways of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran under an agreement signed in Tehran on May 2 2005. The US$600m project is being driven by Russian Railways as part of its emerging North-South Corridor to link the Gulf with the Baltic Sea, and the tripartite joint-venture project company is based in Moscow.

With no fewer than 38 tunnels, the line will be 1435 mm gauge, apart from a 9 km section of dual-gauge at the Astara end, including a 100 m bridge over the River Astarachai at the border. RZD confirmed earlier this year that construction work had already started on the 205 km between Qazvin and Resht.

Armenia's Minister of Transport & Communications Andranik Manukyan is enthusiastic about plans for development of a new rail link from his country to Iran, for which AR is currently undertaking feasibility studies. The minister says potential investors are ‘very positive' about the proposal.

Diverging from the former main line to Jolfa at Ararat, the new line is intended to run southeast though the mountains to reach Yeghegnadzor in the Arpa valley. From here it would continue south through Sisian to reach Meghri on the disused Armenian section of the Jolfa - Baku line where it parallels the Iranian border.

According to Manukyan, the north-south line would play a valuable role in ending the current isolation of the regions in the south of Armenia, encouraging economic development and opening up further mineral reserves — gold ore is already one of AR's principal traffic sources.

South of Meghri, some heavy engineering would be needed to extend the route through the mountains of northern Iran to meet the existing rail network at Marand. However, given RAI's current priorities there seems little realistic prospect of such a line being built in the near future.

  • CAPTION: Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, joined (from the left) his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili and Turkish President Abdulah Gul to insert a time capsule into the foundation stone during the ceremony to mark the start of construction work on the Kars - Tbilisi line at Marabda, Georgia, on November 21 Photo: Reuters/Irakli Gedenidze