Azerbaijan is opening a long-delayed railway intended to cut transport times for goods between Asia and Europe.
President Ilham Aliyev is due to host Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Georgian leader Giorgi Margvelashvili at a ceremony Monday for the departure of the first train from the Caspian Sea port of Alat, south of the Azeri capital, Baku. The event, which Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is also expected to attend, marks the conclusion of a 10-year project to open a rail corridor linking central Asia and Europe through the Caucasus region.
The 826-kilometer (513 miles) railway from Baku to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the Turkish city of Kars may deliver cargo between China and Europe in 12 to 15 days, making it a competitive alternative to existing routes that go via Russia or Iran, and much faster than sea freight, according to the Azeri government. The port at Alat, which Azerbaijan says is the largest in the Caspian Sea region, was built to provide connections to central Asia.
As much as 8 million tons of cargo may be carried on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway by 2025, according to the Azeri government. Passenger services are also planned to start along the route next year, including sleeper-car services between Baku and Istanbul.
The project, initially scheduled for completion in 2010 and then in 2012, suffered repeated delays as construction costs mounted. It failed to win financial backing from the U.S. and the European Union because the railway deliberately avoided passing through Armenia, whose Soviet-era track would have offered the most direct route to Turkey. Azerbaijan and Armenia are in an unresolved conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan as the two former Soviet neighbors fought a war over the disputed territory.
Azerbaijan has invested $640 million from its sovereign wealth fund into upgrading existing track on its section of the line, and helping Georgia to modernize 153 kilometers of railway to the Turkish border. Turkey built a new 76-kilometer section of rail from Kars to the Georgian border.
“Asia and Europe will meet in this grand adventure through the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project,” Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September. The railway and Georgian plans for a deep-water port at Anaklia on the Black Sea coast will help promote “a more prosperous and peaceful region,” he said.
While the new line offers a shorter route for transporting Chinese goods to Europe by rail, “the competition is really tough,” said Akif Mustafayev, permanent representative in Azerbaijan of the intergovernmental commission of TRACECA, an EU-backed transport program. Azerbaijan and other countries on the route will have to offer lower tariffs and simplified customs procedures to win business and avoid delays, he said.