INTRO: A tri-national commission is finalising plans for the Trans-Asian rail link between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, with the aim of signing a formal accord later this year and starting construction by 2005. Sergey Krivoruchko reviews the state of progress and the economic prospects for the new corridor

GROWING COMPETITION between rail, road and sea corridors linking Europe and the countries of the Pacific Rim is driving down tariffs and stimulating international trade. This development is of considerable importance for the landlocked countries in Central Asia, as they seek to improve their transport links to the wider world.

In particular, the changing economic and geopolitical situation in recent years has encouraged several countries to look at ways of creating shorter transit routes between Europe and Asia.

Following independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan recognised that it was well-placed geographically to share in this strategic development, but would need to improve its transport infrastructure to do so. As a result, the State Directorate on New Railroad Construction was formed in January 1998 as a subsidiary of the Ministry of Transport & Communication to develop and implement an effective policy on transit freight.

A critical element in this programme is the planned rail link between China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which will complete a new southern railway corridor between China, Central Asia, the Middle East and southern Europe (RG 4.01 p223).

A key step towards the creation of this southern landbridge came in 1996-99, with the construction of the 974 km South Xinjian railway from Korla to Kashi, as part of the Chinese government’s policy to open up Western China (RG 5.02 p251).

Development of the transport infrastructure is one of China’s current national priorities. The government has stated its intention to turn Xinjian into an international trading hub for the Central Asian region. As part of this goal the aim is to open up two or three new cross-border corridors, of which the rail route through Kyrgyzstan is a top priority.

The former Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji said in June 2001 that a new southern trans-Asian corridor would be of significant importance for many countries in Europe and Asia. Over time, he believed, both the northern and southern routes would become ’multimodal transcontinental corridors’ encompassing rail, road and air routes, pipelines and trunk telecommunication links. This would be driven by the current tendency towards economic globalisation and regional co-operation, he explained.

Choosing the best route

In 1997 the governments of China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan set up a trinational working party to review options for a rail link. Early research indicated that the line would be economically viable, and the experts then turned their attention to finding the optimum alignment.

In the east, the obvious starting point was Kashi, which since 1999 has been connected by rail to the cities of central China and various ports on the Pacific Ocean. But from here there were a number of alternatives, based on the two principal Silk Road passes across the Tien Shan mountain range at Torugart and Irkeshtam.

Within Kyrgyzstan, an early priority for SDNRC was to identify the most appropriate route for the corridor. This was mainly influenced by the location of the country’s existing rail links and the potential markets that these could serve.

The northern line runs from Lugovoi in Kazakhstan to the Kyrgyz capital at Bishkek and the town of Balykychy, which lies on Lake Issyk-Kul. In the southwest, a line from Andizhan in Uzbekistan runs to Kara-Suu in Kyrgyzstan, where it splits into branches running northeast to Jalal-Abad and south to Osh.

The northern route provides the shortest link from Kyrgyzstan to Moscow and northern Europe. From Andizhan there is easy access through Turkmenistan to the Caucasus region and thence to central and southern Europe, or via Turkmenistan to Iran, the Middle East and the ports on the Persian Gulf.

A team of Kyrgyz experts scrutinised eight possible route options, which were discussed at four sessions of the international joint working party in 1999-2001. Their work included field surveys and site visits for each of the proposed routes, to give a visual appreciation of the challenges. SDNRC also commissioned feasibility studies from local and foreign consultancies (RG 8.00 p485).

Based on this research and the joint consultations, it was agreed that the most practical route was from the Andizhan line at Kara-Suu or Jalal-Abad to Kashi via the Torugart pass. The various options within this corridor were then further refined by further field surveys and technical studies. These were partially funded by the European Union through the Tacis and Traceca programmes, as part of the EU’s strategy to develop transport and communications networks in the CIS countries.

The preferred alignment runs from Jalal-Abad (Kara-Suu) along the Yassy river valley. It then tunnels through the Ferghana range to reach the the Arpa river valley, which it follows south past Lake Chatyr-Kul to reach a tunnel under the Torugart-Tau range, at an altitude of around 3750m above sea level.

The length of this route on Kyrgyz territory is 274 km. It offers a ruling gradient of 2%, compared with 3% which would be needed on the other routes. The shorter distance offers savings in both construction and operating costs, with fewer stations and passing tracks required. Following the river valleys will reduce the scale of earthworks and the number of major civil engineering structures.

A second route would use the same alignment from Torugart along the Arpa valley but then turn northeast through Kara-Keche to Balykychy. This would carry traffic for Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation.

Another potential advantage of this route was that MOTC had already started work on a railway from Balykchy to Kara-Keche, for which Japan’s Sumitomo Corp had commissioned studies. A detailed engineering design was prepared for the northernmost 64 km section to Kochkor, and some civil works were started, but construction was suspended for lack of finance.

Total construction on Kyrgyz territory would amount to 634 km: