PRESIDENT Sparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan participated in ceremonies on February 8 to mark completion of the 540 km Trans-Karakum railway from Ashkabad to Dasoguz.

Congratulating the 1500 staff who built the line across the Karakum desert over the past five years, the President expressed a hope that the 'golden link' would form part of an important transit corridor between Europe and the Persian Gulf, offering the most direct route to the Iranian border at Sarakhs and thence via the recently-opened Mashhad - Bafgh line (RG 6.05 p319).

The line will have eight stations, including Darvaza where a locomotive depot is being built at the mid-point of the route. It cuts the rail distance from the capital to the north of the country by more than 700 km, and avoids a short section where the former Soviet main line runs through Uzbekistan. The new route is expected to open up mineral and gas reserves in the region.

Turkmenistan's Ministry of Railways announced that the first train would run on February 19 to mark national Flag Day, with regular services expected to start during March. Journey time for the daily Ashkabad - Dasoguz passenger service will be under 12h, compared to 28h 15min for the present daily through train via Türkmenabad.

The service will be worked by a new trainset formed of two diesel locos, eight coaches and a generator car, which were delivered to Ashkabat in January (above). TPK is buying 48 locos, 30 sleeping cars and 20 coaches from China under a US$128m agreement with Capital-Longji Sci-Tech Co, and 480 freight wagons from builders in Russia and Ukraine.