Construction of a 191 km railway from Iran to Herat in Afghanistan, with the prospect of an extension across Afghan territory to Sher Khan Bandar, promises to stimulate trade with Central Asia. Murray Hughes reports

HERAT is the principal city in western Afghanistan. A rail link from Iran was proposed as long ago as the 1970s, but numerous difficulties prevented the project going ahead. The scheme has since been revived, and work is in progress on the Iranian side of the border.

The 1970s proposal was for a line running southeast from Mashhad, whereas the present project consists of a link off the main line from Mashhad to Bafgh, opened in May 2005 by the then President of Iran (RG 6.05 p319).

The current scheme was launched when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in June 2002 between the Iranian Transport Ministry and the Ministry of Public Utility in Kabul. The project was costed at US$28m and construction was split into four lots, two in Iran, and two in Afghanistan; work officially began in Iran on July 29 2006.

As part of the Mashhad - Bafgh project, a 148 km branch was built from Torbate-Heydariyeh to Sangan, in Khorasan province. This branch has intermediate loops or yards at seven locations, including four main stations at Rashtkhar, Chamanabad, Salami and Salar. It is from the penultimate loop at Khaf that the single-track line to Herat begins.

From Khaf the route heads slightly south and then east across the border through arid and rugged terrain. Total length of the new line is 191 km, of which 77 km is located in Iran and 114 km in Afghanistan. Of the 10 intermediate stations envisaged, Ghurian will be the largest intermediate town served by the section on Afghan territory.

Technical and economic studies were carried out before the go-ahead was given to start work, and some reports are still being assessed. Other studies covered route options, environmental impact and large and small civil engineering structures. Total cost of the studies is US$1·5m.

The alignment will permit passenger trains to operate at 160 km/h, and forecasts suggest that the route will be used by 321000 passengers a year. Iranian Islamic Republic Railways (RAI) highlights the prospect of cultural and commercial exchanges, although freight will obviously be the principal source of revenue with annual traffic expected to reach 6·8 million tonnes. This will include oil products, iron and steel as well as a range of industrial goods.

According to RAI’s General Director of International Affairs Abbas Nazari, the construction of a 1435 mm gauge line into Afghanistan would avoid ‘the heavy cost’ of bogie changing. Both of Afghanistan’s Soviet-built cross-border railways in the north of the country are of 1524 mm gauge.

Extension proposed

RAI envisages that the Herat line may one day form the first part of a major rail trade route to the Central Asian countries that would bypass Turkmenistan.

Preliminary investigations have been made for an extension from Herat that would run for no less than 700 km across northwestern Afghanistan to Meymaneh, Sheberghan and Sher Khan Bandar on the border with Tajikistan. This route would also offer the opportunity to connect with the 1 524 mm gauge line that crosses the Uzbekistan frontier near Termez, penetrating as far as Hayratan. This line is now handling trains nearly every day, mainly carrying petroleum products, machinery, building materials and agricultural produce.

Leaving aside the political implications, the extension represents an immensely demanding engineering challenge with the route passing through harsh mountainous terrain. Rewards would come in terms of transit traffic which would travel into Iran and over the main line to Bafgh and the port of Bandar Abbas. Substantial export and import business is anticipated, with scope for developing intermodal services. RAI says that the traffic would help ‘to amortise quickly’ the capital invested in building the Mashhad - Bafgh railway.