A cargo train carrying a test shipment along the recently completed China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway is bearing in on its final destination in a landmark event for Eurasian trade.
State media in Turkmenistan reported that the train, which departed from the Chinese city of Yiwu, just south of Shanghai, at the end of January covered 7,908 kilometers over nine days, and crossed the border into Iran on February 10.
The entire railroad extends around 10,000 kilometers and requires two weeks to cover, which is estimated to be around twice as fast as the sea route.
“The cargo, loaded with all kinds of consumer goods, traversed the Turkmen section in 28 hours, instead of two days, as had been expected. This significant reduction in travel time translates into substantial savings on transportation costs and makes the route more cost-effective,” state news agency TDH reported.
The overall route could, as its proponents argue, radically increase the efficiency in the transportation of goods from China’s eastern seaboard to markets in the Persian Gulf.
A final link in the mammoth railroad was put into place in December 2014 when the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran officially inaugurated a 930-kilometer line running from Ozen in western Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan to Gorgan in northwestern Iran. That sped up cargo transit between the countries by cutting 600 kilometers off the journey on the previously existing route from Beyneu in western Kazakhstan to Mashhad in northern Iran.
Although the broader focus may narrow in on the significance of connecting the Chinese and Persian Gulf markets through a relatively efficient overland route, the Central Asia countries crossed by the railroad are also eager to derive dividends.
Kazakhstan hopes to use the new railway to up grain exports to Iran fivefold, to 2.5 million tons, and is planning to open a grain terminal near the terminus of the new railway at Gorgan (Kazakhstan already operates one grain terminal in Iran, at the Caspian port of Amirabad). Also keeping an eye on Europe, Kazakhstan hopes to further optimize its rail transportation links with China by creating a high-speed train connection from Khorgos, in the east of the country, to the Caspian port city of Aktau.
The trial China-to-Iran shipment comes at an auspicious juncture as Tehran emerges from the economic isolation forced on it by international sanctions.
A report published in 2015 by Center for Strategic and International Studies cited one well-placed figure as saying Ashgabat would be eagerly welcoming the end of the sanctions regime.
“One international development official with whom we spoke noted that Turkmenistan might be the greatest beneficiary to an end to Iran sanctions, as export and transit opportunities would increase dramatically,” the report noted. “Ashgabat thus views Tehran as critical to its goal of making Turkmenistan a trade and transit hub for the wider Eurasian region.”