Uzbekistan is planning a rail link over a mountain pass that would link Tashkent directly to its territories in the Fergana Valley, bypassing the current line through Tajikistan, according to media reports.
Uzbekistan controls all of Tajikistan’s railway border crossings and often uses them as leverage over its poorer southeastern neighbor. It’s not unusual for Uzbekistan, trying to stymie Tajikistan’s plans to build a massive hydropower plant upstream, to cite “technical problems”, “terrorist sabotage”, or “weather delays” as reasons for extended closures at the border crossings.
Tajikistan maintains some leverage in these disputes thanks to the 70-mile stretch of the Fergana main line that crosses its territory. Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley population of some 10 million relies on this line for its fuel supplies. Tajikistan also needs the line because factories and farms in Sughd Province and Khujand produce much of the country’s modest exportable goods base, including consumer items, processed foods, and clothing.
Thus, rail access for both countries is predicated on cooperation to keep the line open. An official from the Sughd Free Economic Zone once insisted to me that complications were overblown, and that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan “need each other.”
With the new rail, Uzbekistan wouldn’t need Tajikistan anymore. Uzbekistan would be able to cut Khujand and Sughd Province off from trade and transport at will. Centrasia.ru says Uzbek Railways will complete its feasibility studies this year, with the five-year project scheduled to start next year.
This map roughly illustrates the Uzbek plan. From Tashkent – for over 150 years the rail hub of Central Asia – routes lead toward Iran, Europe, Siberia, and China.
After independence, in order to assure road transport sovereignty, Uzbekistan quickly set about building a highway along the same route bypassing Tajikistan. The idea of adding a rail detour is nearly as old. With a mountain pass at 2,200 meters, the engineering is not simple, however. Two tunnels are required. The estimated $1.9 billion price tag for the 80-mile stretch seems rich for a country in financial turmoil. And Uzbek Railways is already reportedly in debt. While Uzbekistan currently pays dearly to ship goods to its Fergana regions by road, a rail option may take decades to pay off in efficiency savings.
The trump card this time around may be China. Kyrgyzstan is pressing hard to win Chinese investment in a railroad linking the Fergana Valley with China. The project would be still costlier and more complex than Uzbekistan’s proposed Fergana link. An outlet to China from the Fergana terminus might change the calculus for Uzbekistan, making its Fergana rail links suddenly more valuable. Further, if Uzbekistan can secure funding from the Chinese, the project becomes more realistic.
A 2006 review by the Asian Development Bank described the Uzbek rail bypass as “not financially or economically viable,” noting the existing route through Tajikistan. It also projected costs may balloon to double their initial estimates, and described the project as a potential distraction from other infrastructure needs.
The ideal solution, of course, would be cross-border trade and transport cooperation among the Central Asian states, with efficient customs procedures and reasonable usage fees. Each state, and hence its citizens, would win. This is the vision of a New Silk Road that simply cannot emerge from the zero-sum priorities of Central Asia’s ruling elites.