Uzbekistan: an unfolding story of rail transport possibilities
Uzbekistan’s position in Central Asia allows it to function as a crossroad for rail routes connecting north to south, and east to west. In recent years, the country strived to become a central transit destination, that will provide alternative routes for Eurasian rail transportation. Through infrastructure improvements, investments, and international agreements, Uzbekistan aims to unfold its full potential.
In 2016 Uzbekistan celebrated the opening of a new railway line that connects the Angren basin with Fergana valley, the easternmost region of the country. Before the launching of the new line, trains heading to Fergana valley had to cross borders with Turkmenistan twice. As a result, a trip that was supposed to take place within the country’s borders ended up being international due to poor rail infrastructure. The Angren-Pap railway line, a 123-kilometres infrastructure project, changed the situation, providing a route that includes Central Asia’s longest mountain pass, Qamchiq Tunnel.
Launching the Angren-Pap railway line was an essential move in terms of facilitating rail transportation in the country. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan set the bar higher in the following years. For instance, the country is currently near the completion of a gas-to-liquid (GTL) plant at Qashqadaryo, that will enable processing natural gas into liquid fuel. Respectively, the produced liquid fuel can be used in transit rail transportation.
Additionally, earlier this year, Uzbekistan Railways announced the purchase of a new fleet of electric locomotives from the Russian manufacturer Transmashholder. The brand new locomotives intend to upgrade the services of the rail operator, especially in the mountainous regions of the country.
On top of that, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) revealed, recently, the grant of a 21 million dollars loan to Uzbekistan, to boost the country’s attempt in modernising its eastern railway network. This new financial support scheme comes in continuation of the financing program that concerned the electrification of railway tracks in the Fergana valley, back in 2017. It is estimated to play a crucial role in the trade between Uzbekistan and its neighbouring counties.
Rail freight growth
Following the upgrade in Uzbekistan’s railway network, the possibilities appearing are numerous. First of all, the developments played a crucial role in launching the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan multimodal service. China was pushing for this connection to start operating since it was considered significant for the progress of the Central Asian trade. Currently, the service includes two legs of rail transportation and one of road, since Kyrgystan’s rail infrastructure is still underdeveloped. All parts concerned are looking forward to improvements in Kyrgyzstan’s rail network that will allow the service to use only trains.
Secondly, Russia and Uzbekistan discussed a few months ago the existing possibilities in transportation between them. With transported volumes increasing significantly, the two countries saw the potential of further growth, with the only barrier being Uzbekistan’s rail infrastructure. Since Uzbekistan is taking forward steps in this matter, there is a chance of reconsidering the objectives of their cooperation and secure a stable transport relationship.
Thirdly, with these advances, Uzbekistan will have the chance to acquire a more central role in the trade of the Caucasian region. With a train service from Uzbekistan to Turkey already launched, the landlocked country can now claim more space in the routes towards southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean sea.
Sea links and New Silk Road
Among the immediate goals of Uzbekistan also lies the direct linking with seaports. The country has already built a railway line to Mazar-e-Sharif in Afganistan, enabling further connections to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
What remains now is to see whether all these attempts will prove beneficial for the country’s role in rail transportation. One thing is for sure so far: Uzbekistan is taking the right steps in becoming an important transit country, not only in regional Central Asian trade but also in the broader New Silk Road. Hopefully, the implemented changes will allow it to provide an alternative solution in the Asia-EU connection, and become a pivotal transport and logistics hub in Central Asia.