10 April 2014 15:41

Silk Wind Railway Project pulls in to Astana

ASTANA. KAZINFORM The Kazakh government is preparing for a major multilateral announcement this coming May during the annual Astana Economic Forum that they hope will revolutionise the country's transportation infrastructure.

Sources report that during the conference, which draws an estimated 300 high level delegates from some 20 countries, Kazakhstan expects to sign a multinational agreement for the construction of the Silk Wind railway project with the governments of Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, Silk Way Reporters said.
The agreement is to be signed during the TransEurasia 2014 exhibition on the sidelines of the Astana Economic Forum as part of the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA) framework launched by the European Union twenty years ago. The EU began the project out of the interest of diversifying energy supply routes from the Central Asian basin as well as connect China to Southern Europe, but the European Commission never supported the viability of the Silk Wind project. Nevertheless, the Kazakh authorities and other partners have pushed hard for to make Silk Wind a reality on their own, emphasizing the multipurpose cargo container use on the railway.
Under an ambitious schedule, the Kazakhstan scheme proposes that cargo containers shipped from China by rail to the Caspian Sea port of Aktau, then ferried across to Azeri capital Baku, and then again by rail to Georgian ports on the Black Sea, then onward to Turkey or Ukraine. In the latter case, Silk Wind would be combined with the Lithuanian-Ukrainian transport corridor, Viking.
The Viking project was created by rail industry leaders of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine in May 2008. It connects the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, and allows trucking along the 1,753km Odessa-Kiev-Minsk-Klaipeda route.
However the fastest, most efficient option for Silk Wind would get to Europe through Turkey. Following the completion of the first railway tunnel underneath the Bosporus Straights at the end of last year, representing the culmination of a nine-year-long $5 billion project, this route became the most economically attractive for the Kazakh shipping project.
According to specialists, once the 13.6km tunnel becomes fully operational, more than a million people a day will be able to travel from Asia to Europe without any traffic jams at the famously clogged bridges over the Bosphorus. Currently the tunnel is undergoing tests, but the number of passengers is growing every day, and a high-speed train connecting Istanbul with the capital Ankara will open soon.
These trains will be able cross the Bosphorus under three minutes, and within an hour and a half they will transport passengers from Halkaly to Gebze, which are the endpoints connecting the European Continent to the Asian Continent. The tunnel is also built to handle freight traffic, in theory connecting London to Beijing.
As such, Central Asian nations are hoping to capitalize on this new level of shipping traffic. Aside from the completion of the Bosporus tunnel (known as the "Marmara"), the most critical area to complete is the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, covering a 4,192km route that can be covered in 12 days. The Silk Wind will also increase speeds by using the Zhezkazgan-Beyneu railway in Kazakhstan, which is expected to be commissioned in the first quarter of 2015.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also want to get in on the action. In 2012, Presidents Islam Karimov and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov signed agreements to connect the Navoi-Turkmenbashi rail line with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars route. According to a joint statement released at the time, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan see this transportation corridor as an opportunity for "broader access to international markets."
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has taken things further by securing a single tariff agreement for the transportation of goods from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. It seems that all they are waiting for is the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars link to be build, which probably won't start until 2015.
As such, all eyes are on this agreement to be signed at the Astana Economic Forum, which would initiate Central Asia's very first multinational high-speed cargo container train connecting China to Turkey, with an estimated through-rate of some $5,000 per container, finally making it economically viable to Beijing to compete with sea routes to European markets.
And if all involved parties of the project prior to the Astana Economic Forum will be able to complete intergovernmental coordination of the Silk Wind project, to sign an agreement, and to move on to the practical implementation of the project, then it is going to be a highlight of the Astana conference, if not the highlight of the year.