INTRO: On February 5 the President of Kyrgyzstan signed legislation promoting the development of rail links between Central Asia and China. Chris Jackson asked the State Directorate on New Railroad Construction about the state of progress

AT THE END of March, a Chinese study team is due to complete a report into the optimum route for a railway from Kashi to the border with Kyrgyzstan. It is the next step in a project to connect the Korla - Kashi line, opened in 1999, with the railways of Central Asia. Following the historic Silk Road, this 535 km link is intended to forge closer ties between the Central Asian republics and the rapidly developing economic powerhouse in China.

The project also gives the government of Kyrgyzstan the opportunity to develop domestic rail links between Bishkek and the southern city of Jalal-Abad, which are served by isolated spurs of the former Soviet Railways network.

The State Department on New Railroad Construction was created under a Decree by President Askar Akayev in January 1998. SDNRC Director Erkin Massadykov explains that its role is to ensure the integration of the Kyrgyz rail network into international transport corridors, and to accelerate procedural issues covering the design, construction and financing of new lines.

Operation and maintenance of the existing railways remain the responsibility of the Railroads Department at the Ministry of Transport & Communication. Following a recent decision to reduce the size of the civil service by 30%, SDNRC is to be incorporated into the MoTC. However, pending formal legislation, it is still operating separately.

Over the past three years, SDNRC has commissioned feasibility studies from local and foreign consultancies. The route recommended by Gibb Rail (RG 8.00 p485), was submitted to the government, along with alternatives proposed by Kyrgyz and Kazakh design institutes. Detailed specifications were drawn up for certain sections, to help verify the technical and economic feasibility of the different options. Following further work by SDNRC and Transproject of Almaty, the route was formally adopted as a preferred option. Initial estimates put the construction cost at between US$1·5bn and US$2bn.

Detailed assessments are nearing completion on two sections of the ’north-south’ link. These cover the 64 km from Balykchi to Kochkor in the northeast and the 117 km from Kochkor to the coal reserves at Kara-Keche. The mines are expected to produce a million tonnes of coal a year, boosting the Kyrgyz economy and supporting the railway project.

In December, the Kyrgyz Parliament adopted a law giving priority status to the Balykchi / Jalal-Abad - Torugart link, and this received formal assent from the President on February 5. By confirming preferential conditions for investors, the law enabled Transport Minister Kubanychbek Dzhumaliyev to announce on February 25 a programme to raise US$650m in private finance.

Intergovernmental commission

The governments of China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have also set up an intergovernmental commission for the international rail link. This body is co-ordinating the activities of a trilateral working group of experts which is undertaking assessment and pre-feasibility studies.

Massadykov says the working group is currently developing the best route options for each of the three countries. It is also working to harmonise general design and technical parameters.

As yet, the Trilateral Protocol between China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan only covers survey and pre-design works. Deputy Director Farid Gataulin expects the level of future co-operation on implementation to be clarified with the signing of a second protocol. Agreement has not yet been reached with the Chinese government over the border crossing at Torugart. At present only Chinese and Kyrgyz citizens are allowed to cross the border at Torugart, and other nationalities are required to travel via Korgas.

SDNRC is waiting for submission of the integrated report to the commission, which should pave the way for the signing of the formal trilateral accord on construction. This will confirm the final route, but Kyrgyzstan is continuing to endorse the view that the line should run through the Torugart pass.

EU funds more studies

Following extensive discussions between the Kyrgyz government and representatives of the European Community in 1998-99, the two new lines have been included in the EU-funded Tacis/ Traceca Action Plan. This decision was endorsed in March 2000, during the last Traceca forum in Baku.

The EU has now allocated 1·5m euros to fund further feasibility studies. Last December, Traceca co-ordinators were involved in the preparation of tender documentation for the feasibility study. The EU issued a formal project notice on January 23 2001, calling for a feasibility study of rail links between the Ferghana valley, Bishkek, and Kashi. Massadykov says SDNRC is not involved with the tendering or selection of the project contractor, which is being handled by the EU.

Construction schedule

Because of the complexity of the international negotiations and the need to attract private finance, Massadykov is not in a position to prepare a schedule for construction. However, SDNRC is planning a staged development.

Stage I would cover the international main line from Jalal-Abad to Torugart and Kashi. The north-south link from Balykchi to Kochkor and Kara-Keche would form the second stage. The final phase would connect Kara-Keche with the Torugart line at Kazarman, completing the north-south route. This will also open up an alternative international route from Kazakhstan to China via Bishkek.