From the countries of Central Asia to the crowded tracks of India, the train is a common sight in many Asian countries. But due to war, poverty and the fear of invasion the age of the railway passed Afghanistan by. Until today.
A modest 75km of track is enough to connect the neighbouring country of Uzbekistan with Afghanistan, passing over the “Friendship Bridge” constructed by the then USSR on the river Amu and running through the port of Hairatan.
Completed in less than a year in late 2010, the cargo line has been a team effort: built by Uzbeks, funded by the Asian Development Bank and facilitated by Afghans. And in a country like Afghanistan, says the District Chief of Hairatan, Haji Najeeb, if the local people hadn’t cooperated, no amount of money would have brought this project to fruition.
“We provided them a base and security,” he explains. “We also cleared the area from mines. If we weren't working hard on this we could have lost this huge achievement.”
Providing secure passage
For a land-locked country like Afghanistan, a blossoming economy depends heavily on import and export, which relies for the main part on huge convoys of trucks going in and out of the country. As well as huge delays at customs stations, these convoys are also vulnerable to attack.
As the carriages are sealed at origin, the train doesn't need to be checked by customs, making it much quicker. Haji Najeeb is also proud of the security his town has provided to their new technology.
“Discipline and security like we have here, you won't find in 364 districts of Afghanistan,” he boasts. “At night people's doors are open, our businessmen come and go by night or day without any anxiety. They load, unload and transfer their goods.”
The train's terminus is the historic city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the border province of Balkh, but ambitions for Afghanistan's railways stretch much further.
Plans for extension
After three years of training, Uzbekistan will hand over control to the newly created Afghan Railway Department to preside over plans to extend the railway lines west through Herat to Iran and east through the gate of Torkham to Pakistan.
And although the train is strictly cargo-only for now, there have been a few passengers already.
“Recently the chief of railways in Uzbekistan visited and I personally went with him in the train until Mazar airport. The construction work is 100% finished without any problems. It's ready for use, so now we're just waiting for the Afghan authorities to open it officially.”
Perhaps it's not too hard to imagine that this new transcontinental cargo silk road will one day connect Afghanistan beyond its neighbours and to the rest of the world.